In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Camille Saint-Saëns

  • Introduction

Music Camille Saint-Saëns
Jann Pasler, Sabina Teller Ratner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0222


Saint-Saëns played an important role in French musical culture, politics, and society. In many ways, his life story is unique: as a child prodigy raised by his mother and aunt, as both cosmopolitan composer and virtuoso performing throughout Europe and as far as San Francisco and Saigon, as a teacher of religious music at the Ecole Niedermeyer while an anticlerical republican, and as one of the earliest-born pianists to record. Cofounder of the Société Nationale as well as advocate for the music of Liszt and Wagner, he was considered progressive in his early years. Through his life choices and the evolution of his style, we learn what was at stake for the French and how his music came to be understood as an emblem of French tradition. As an ardent Frenchman struggling with defeat by Prussia in 1871, a combative republican under the Moral Order, a creative idealist seeking musical means of promoting republican values, and a voyageur who used music to reflect on colonial realities, the composer, like Victor Hugo, eventually became a consecrated hero of the Third Republic. His music, together with his increasing anti-Wagnerism, helps us understand how republicanism changed to a conservative force c. 1900, and why French identity itself changed over time as the Republic sought to reflect the interests of not just the French Revolution, but the entire French past, including its monarchies. If Saint-Saëns’s place in music histories was ambiguous after his death, with French modernists and others divided on the nature and merits of his legacy, in recent decades he has risen again in esteem, as a very important composer whose music continues to personify French values of clarity, logic, and balance. Proceeding from the general to the specific, this article starts with music histories, dictionaries, and encyclopedias that give a substantial role to the composer; magazines devoted to Saint-Saëns; and exhibition catalogues on specific aspects of his life, including stays in Egypt and Algeria. Biographies from different periods follow, and then his writings, correspondence, concert reviews, poetry, plays, and essays in collections he, and subsequently others, assembled and analyzed, some translated into English. Review of his creative work comes last, beginning with thematic catalogues, and then compositions organized by genre. As in any such bibliography, only a selection of the many descriptive, analytic, and interpretive essays and reviews published during his lifetime could be included.

General Overviews

This section provides Music Histories that give significant attention to Saint-Saëns; Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, articles (1925–2008) that encapsulate Saint-Saëns’s reputation at various times; and Magazines dedicated to the composer (1901–1935). The latter are particularly rich for their numerous essays by a wide range of writers, most of whom knew the composer personally, and on a broad range of subjects, most appearing only herein. Bonnerot 1922 (cited under Magazines Dedicated to Saint-Saëns), for example, includes thirty contributions. Besides offering analyses of his works and ideas, these special issues are also important sources of caricatures, photographs of the composer and his collaborators, set designs for his operas, and facsimiles of autograph manuscripts, all arranged in creative and attractive ways. Exhibition catalogues document the various materials assembled from Saint-Saëns’s life, travels (Egypt, Algeria), his compositions for the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, and his personal archives at the Château-Musée de Dieppe in Normandy. The section includes an excellent annotated bibliography, Flynn 2003 (cited under Bibliography).

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