Dr R Balashankar
Camille Saint-Saëns and his World, Jann Pasler (Ed), Princeton University Press, Pp 422 (PB), £ 24.95
CAMILLE Saint-Saëns was a great late nineteenth century musical figure. And yet that is only a part of his multi-faceted personality. He was interested in astronomy, politics and travelling. He was humourous and cultivated life-long friendships with unlikely people. Camille Saint-Saëns and his World, edited by Jann Pasler, is a collection of essays on him. Pasler introduces the man thus: “A composer whose career spanned seventy years and five continents, a virtuoso who performed, wrote, and excelled in nearly every musical genre, a writer almost as prolific in prose as in music, and a man who cultivated long friendships worldwide with astronomers, philosophers, botanists, and ordinary music lovers: it is no wonder that during his lifetime Saint-Saëns was so eminent, to some the quintessentially French musician.”
There are excerpts from the essays, articles and personal accounts by people who knewSaint-Saëns. Writes Paul Viardot, French violinist and musicologist (in 1914), “Those who had the misfortune of not having known Maestro Saint-Saëns forty years ago, and who see him now only as the great man, member of the institute, recipient of medals from here or there, musician of genius, adored, celebrated, loved, criticized, feared, praised—in a word the greatest French composer—cannot imagine what this already celebrated master was like, with his ever-youthful ardor, his witty, often biting repartees, his passion for work, and his health that confounds time itself.”
Saint-Saëns was an amateur astronomer, a registered and regular member of the Société astronomique de France. He used to say that even in musical compositions he did not find the thrill comparable to one given by study of the sky. And playfully suggested that such a study would benefit the politicians as they “would come to understand better how little are things they believe to be grand, how momentary are what they see as eternal, and how contingent what seems absolute.” How remarkable!
Jean-Christophe Branger mentions the competition and controversy between Saint-Saëns and his contemporary J Massenet over the nomination to the rank of grand-croix in 1910. Saint-Saëns wrote in a letter to a friend, “You also mention the grand-croix: it is my turn to have it, but since I will remain absolutely neutral, as I have done all my life, and since the other one [Massenet] will pull all the strings within his reach, he is quiet capable of going over my head. That will be one more bitter pill to swallow after so many others.” He had three faults: to be too good, sometimes too frank and always too modest.
Saint-Saëns had a great capacity to strike friendship and it was not always in his area of interest or ‘level.’ His friendship with Charles Lecocq, a practitioner of opera-comique, is mentioned by Yves Gérard, a French musicologist.
In the course of the narrative, Jann Pasler discusses the roles the various music institutions played in the society and how the world of music was divided sometimes, a common enough phenomena. Several music-related personalities make appearances in the pages, some known, some not so well known. But through all that the personality of Saint-Saëns as a human being, friend and a social being comes out, as much as his greatness as a musician. He was fortunate enough to enjoy fame and name during his lifetime.
Jann Pasler is professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.
(Princeton University Press 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540)