Camille Saint-Saëns was an extraordinary person. One of the great child prodigies of his time, he first performed in public at the age of five, playing the piano part in a Beethoven piano and violin sonata; by age 12, he is said to have memorized all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. His musical facility was equal in later life, when he worked as a piano virtuoso and organist; Saint-Saëns was also known to be an astonishing sight-reader and improviser. Wagner was amazed to watch him read his own opera scores at the piano, and his organ transcription of Liszt’s St. Francois d’Assise predicant aux oiseaux so thrilled the composer that he said it was the greatest musical feat he’d ever heard. Saint-Saëns was also the successful author of plays and poems, and a devout student of philosophy and science. Berlioz, ever handy with a bon mot, remarked that Saint-Saëns ‘knows everything, but lacks inexperience.’
He was also, it seems, a hard man to get along with. He remained friends with Liszt, Berlioz, and his student Gabriel Fauré throughout his life, but many of Saint-Saëns’ collegial relationships soured. Early on, he had been a champion of Schumann, Wagner, and other revolutionary-style artists, but he turned harshly against them as Germanophilia took more strident forms. He also fell out with César Franck, and feuded openly with Vincent D’Indy (as a prominent musician and aristocrat, D’Indy played on the anti-Dreyfus side of the Dreyfus affair – he may not have been so easy to get along with, either). Profound family misfortune and assorted professional issues seem to have painted a streak of reactionary bitterness in the later years of Saint-Saëns’ life. He couldn’t stand Debussy, and was one of the first to leave the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. (He reportedly left after the opening bassoon solo, which can’t have been more than about ten seconds. It is hard to imagine anyone leaving any sooner, at least not for musical reasons.)
Over the years, his reputation has been more of one who wrote music to charm rather than music to explore. This probably has something to do with general dissonance between French and German musical thought, and also has something to do with his unwillingness to explore or accept new styles. But these complaints might also be somewhat recreational, and they can seem shrill in the face of what he wrote. To reject the style he chose seems to reject the possibility that he found access to the content he wanted within that style. And he wrote great music. Although one may hear his music in a pops context (concertos, Carnival of the Animals, and organ symphony, especially), his music is full of layers and questions; furthermore, his skill in technical matters of composing – especially in writing idiomatically and virtuosically for instruments – was tremendous. However more conventional its instrumentation and however more unusual it may be to hear than Carnival of the Animals or Havanaise, the Cello Sonata No. 1 is just as replete with compositional brilliance as could be expected of the brilliant and bristly man.