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Who in their right mind would give a six-year-old boy the complete orchestral score of Mozart's Don Giovanni as a present, and expect the child to read through the two bound volumes right away? Camille Saint-Saëns, aged six, did receive just such a present from an admirer of his immense talent, and promptly read the opera through, cover to cover, not just once but several times, until he had the music memorized. Never was such an improbable present so much loved—and turn out to be so very appropriate!
If young Camille was neither as dazzling a child prodigy nor as exploited as his idol Mozart, his mother must take the blame for it, or the credit—for his father had died when the child was not quite two months old. He was such a sickly baby that on a doctor's advice he spent the first two years of his life away from his mother and great-aunt, being cared for by a nurse. Yet, consider the promise: shown a piano at age two, Camille at once took to it. He finished an entire course of study within a month, and soon began to improvise. By age four he had begun scribbling down notation. By age six he had already composed several pieces, and persuaded a woman singer to perform one of his songs—all twelve bars of it with a four-bar ritornello—while he himself solemnly accompanied her at the piano. The singer's father, impressed by what he heard, then came up with the gift of the Mozart score.
Saint-Saëns made his debut as piano soloist with orchestra at age ten, performing Beethoven's third piano concerto and a Mozart concerto in B-flat. In an essay entitled "Memories of My Childhood," he explains what followed: "After my first concert, which was a brilliant success, my teacher wanted me to give others, but my mother did not wish me to have a career as an infant prodigy. She had higher ambitions and was unwilling for me to continue in concert work for fear of injuring my health. The result was that a coolness sprang up between my teacher and me which ended our relations."
However, the youngster continued his studies at the pianoforte, reading everything he could lay his hands on. That included all of Beethoven's sonatas, which led a friend to protest to the mother, asking, "What music will he play when he is twenty?"
Prophetically, she answered: "He will play his own."
Saint-Saëns' early composition teacher was a man called Maleden, who taught a system where (according to Saint-Saëns) "the chords are not considered in and for themselves—as fifths, sixths, sevenths—but in relation to the pitch of the scale on which they appear. The chords acquire different characteristics according to the place they occupy, and, as a result, certain things are explained which are, otherwise, inexplicable."
Saint-Saëns by his own account was a rather intractable pupil, and this exposed him to Maleden's own unique method of arriving at a concensus. "Our lessons were often very stormy," the composer recalled later in life. "From time to time certain questions came up on which I could not agree with him. He would then take me quietly by the ear, bend my head and hold my ear to the table for a minute or two. Then, he would ask whether I had changed my mind. As I had not, he would think it over and very often he would confess that I was right."
Entering the conservatoire shortly after, at age twelve, Saint-Saëns soon established himself as an organist, carrying off first prize three years later. He then entered Jacques Halévy's composition class. But though Halévy himself had won the Prix de Rome, that prestigious prize eluded the young Camille no matter how hard he tried. Berlioz explained away the failure by quipping: "He had everything it takes, but lacked inexperience!"
Camille Saint-Saëns was born on October 9, 1835, far enough back in the nineteenth century to enjoy the patronage of Rossini, and lived to December 16, 1921—long enough to have had to endure and survive the abusive slings and arrows flung at him in his old age by a young and insolent Erik Satie. The old lion got his revenge, overshadowing his tormentor even in death. And his reputation endures. True, Saint-Saëns' music does not stir our emotions to the extent that Beethoven's does; he does not lead us to plumb the depths of despair, turning then to raise our spirits to the point of ecstasy. What he does, however, he does extremely well; his music, though light-hearted, cannot be taken lightly. It demands that the performer bring to it a verve, dexterity, and panache, and also a certain joie de vivre; it leaves us stimulated sometimes, and pleased and amused sometimes, and almost always it leaves us satisfied.
Excerpted from Danse Macabre and Other Works for Solo Piano by Camille Saint-Saëns. Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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