Camille Saint-Saëns and His World

spacer Edited by Jann Pasler

Princeton University Press; 422 pp. $35

Books Saint Saens and his world cover 513

Under Leon Botstein's guiding eye, Bard College's annual festivals devoted to the music and cultural milieu of one particular composer continue to produce useful and illuminating conference volumes. The 2012 festival investigated the varied career, manifold achievements and shifting reputation of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), and the resultant volume contains much of interest both to scholars and to those interested in the aesthetics and politics of French music, which Saint-Saëns helped to shape for well over six decades. 

None of the composer's operas yield specific essays, but there is much material to be gleaned on Saint-Saëns's vocal works. Jean-Christophe Branger's fascinating "Rivals and Friends: Saint-Saëns, Massenet and Thaïs" traces a long acquaintance marked by competition for honors and resources, outward respectfulness and private seething. Saint-Saëns found Massenet ungrateful, covetous and a professional menace ("Selfishness, lies and avarice have never had a better incarnation..."), whereas he counted Bizet, Guiraud and Delibes as friends. Saint-Saëns wished for Massenet's savvy as a theatrically incisive composer; on the musical level, he genuinely admired Thaïs, dedicating a piano version of its finale to Mme. Louise Massenet. Yves Gérard's nuanced essay on the lifelong friendship Saint-Saëns enjoyed with France's post-Offenbach master of operetta, Charles Lecocq (1832–1918), shows a different side of his personality. Annegret Fauser's comprehensive consideration of the composer's generally overlooked mélodies could serve as an introduction to that genre itself. Mitchell Morris deals deftly and imaginatively with the complex issue of the composer's sexual identity, pinned around his renowned gender-bending performances as a parodic Gounod Marguerite and Gluck Armide at Pauline Viardot-Garçia's famous Sunday salons.

Other illuminating articles about this polymath investigate Saint-Saëns's interest in astronomy (Léo Houziaux); his status as the first major composer to write for film and the use made of his music in cinema (Martin Marks); and his 1906 visit to the U.S. (Carolyn Guzski), where Samson et Dalila had been heard in concert as early as 1892, and where the Met gave Saint-Saëns a farewell concert, at which he conducted, played piano and heard Louise Kirkby-Lunn sing his music. Pasler herself attends to a number of topics, including the composer's informative, often jocular correspondence with his publishers, his relationship to Algeria — a frequent haven, creative locus and eventual place of death — and his interest in and conception of Ancient Africa and Greece.

Some essays incorporate and reference the composer's own writings (sometimes propagandistic) on a wide variety of topics relating to French musical education, institutionalization and concert life. Some have helpful, simple musical examples. Yet one useful addition to these welcome Bard volumes would be a two-page timeline of the given composer's personal, educational and compositional activities; a random reader searching for Saint-Saëns's dates of birth and death — or the dates of his operas — would go wanting here. spacer


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