The foremost living composer of France, who has been called the dean of the French School, and is perhaps the most versatile musician of modern times. Saint-Saens was born in Paris, of Jewish descent. His father having died when he was very young, he was brought up by his mother and a greataunt, a gifted musician, who taught him the rudiments of music at an early age. Later he studied piano with Stamaty and Maleden, and at the age of seven entered the Conservatory, becoming a member of Halevy's class, and studying organ with Benoist and theory and composition with Reber and Gounod. Saint-Saens was a "wonder-child," his first public appearance as a pianist taking place in 1848, when he was ten years of age, at which time he performed the works of Handel, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. When he was fourteen he won, in Benoist's class, the second organ prize, and in 1851 the first prize. He competed, without success, for the Prize of Rome in 1852, and it is a curious fact that Saint-Saens has gained every possible distinction except the greatly coveted Prize of Rome, for which he several times tried, and always unsuccessfully. He was only sixteen when he composed his first symphony, which was performed with great success at a concert of the Society of Saint Cecilia. His second symphony was composed in 1859, but did not show any great originality. In 1867 he obtained a first prize for a cantata, entitled Les Noces de Promethee, which was accepted for the opening of the International Exhibition.
Saint-Saens was appointed a professor of music in the Niedermayer School of Religious Music in 1852; became organist of the Church of Saint Merry in 1853, and in 1858 accepted a similar position at the Madeleine, and there won great renown for his wonderful improvisations. He resigned this post in 1877, his time being taken up with his piano concert tours. Saint-Saens first appeared in London as a pianist in 1871, and during the next twenty years gave many performances there. In 1893 he was honored with the degree of Bachelor of Music by Cambridge University. In the meantime his chambermusic, piano concertos, and symphonic poems were making his name widely known. Saint-Saens' debut as an operatic composer did not occur until he was thirty-seven, when a one-act operatic work, entitled La Princesse Jaune, was performed at the Opera Comique, Paris. It was followed in 1877 by Le Timbre d'Argent, which contains a brilliant overture, but which, like its predecessor, was a comparative failure. The same year Saint-Saens brought out Samson et Delilah, a sacred opera, which of all the composer's works has attained the greatest degree of fame, and is generally considered his masterpiece. This opera was given entire in Paris at one of the Colonne concerts, but was never put on the stage until 1877, when Liszt had it brought out at Weimar. It was given in France as an opera in 1890, at Rouen, and finally was produced on a great scale in Paris at the Opera, where it is now incorporated in the repertory. It has been heard in America and in England so far only in oratorio form. His other operatic works are fitienne Marcel; Henry VIII.; Proserpine; Phryne, an opera comique in the old style; Les Barbares; and Fredegonde, produced in 1895. The last-named was begun by Guiraud and finished by Saint-Saens. His latest works are L'Ancestre, and the oneact opera, Helene, produced in 1904 at Monte Carlo. Saint-Saens' fame, however, rests largely upon his instrumental music and his masterly work as a conductor. He has perhaps been most successful in his symphonic poems, the best known of which are Phaeton; Le Rouet d'Omphale; La Jeunesse d'Hercule; and the weird Danse Macabre, in which skeletons rise from their graves to hold nocturnal revels. For piano Saint-Saens has composed four concertos; a suite; variations; tarentella; marches for four hands; and a sextet for piano and stringed instruments. He has also written an operatic cantata, Le Deluge; a Christmas oratorio, The Lyre and the Harp; two masses; an ode written for the Birmingham Festival; a requiem; psalms for chorus and orchestra; motets; chorales; and songs.
As a composer of concerto, oratorio and chamber-music, Saint-Saens' work has brought him world-wide fame, and he is the first Frenchman who may be said to have competed successfully with the German composers on their own ground in the domain of symphonic and chamber-music. He was once an enthusiastic and ardent champion of Wagner; but in 1879 he antagonized the admirers of the German musician by writing and publishing a series of articles in which he severely criticized the Ring dramas, and declared that he never had, did not then and never would belong to the "Wagnerian religion." He admires Berlioz, and still more, Liszt, and if he can be called a follower of any one composer it is the former.