100th anniversary of the death of the composer Camille Saint-Saëns
Dr. Hans-Werner Boresch / Music Education
Photo: UniService Transfer

When an out-of-tune violin found its way into the world of music

Year100Knowledge interview with musicologist Hans-Werner Boresch on the 100th anniversary of the death of composer Camille Saint-Saëns.

On December 16, 1921, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns died, whom contemporaries crowned the new Mozart at a young age. Who was this exceptional artist?

Boresch: Certainly one of the most prolific and versatile composers of the 19th century, which is also due to the fact that the period of his compositional activity spans no less than 80 years. In addition, he frequently gave concerts as an organist and as a pianist, he performed in public for the first time at the age of five - for the last time, by the way, in 1921, the year of his death. Moreover, throughout his life he was interested in other arts, but also in sciences, especially natural sciences. Saint-Saëns was one of the founders of the Société astronomique de France. He was thus a universalist, though very little is known of his private life.

Franz Liszt had a lasting influence on him. Can you hear that in his works?

Boresch: Perhaps he would not have composed his "symphonic poems" - including Danse macabre - without his acquaintance with Liszt.

It is the compositional principle of theme transformation that is probably inspired by Liszt. This means that a theme or motif occurs several times in the course of a longer work, but is sometimes radically changed - that is, transformed. An example is the Third Symphony by Saint-Saëns, in which a theme is introduced at the beginning, which is taken up several times, but whose character always changes. Incidentally, the piece was used in the family film "A Little Pig Named Babe," which was very popular at the time.

"Samson et Dalila" is considered his most successful opera. The description for this work states, "In a succession of masterfully intermingling scenes, religion and seduction are irresistibly intertwined." After its premiere in Weimar in 1877, it took another 13 years to be seen in France. Were religion and seduction too delicate for a large audience?

Boresch: In Weimar, Liszt, who was fond of Saint-Saëns, was probably in favor of the premiere. In France at that time, Saint-Saëns was considered "unimaginative" and - especially in his operas - a Wagnerian. Thus, he was considered poison for the theater coffers. When "Samson et Dalila" was first performed in the provinces in Rouen, France, he was, on the other hand, a recognized composer, but now met with reserve in Germany, because of alleged Wagner-hostile statements.

What is the attraction of his symphonic works such as "Danse macabre"?

Boresch: Their tonal color certainly contributes to their appeal: In the "Danse macabre," for example, Saint-Saëns uses an out-of-tune solo violin and a xylophone - uncommon at the time. In his Third Symphony, he adds an organ and a four-hand piano to the orchestra.

He did not release the Carnival of the Animals, subtitled Grande fantaisie zoologique, one of his best-known works today, for performance until after his death. Why?

Boresch: Saint-Saëns probably got the first ideas for Carnaval des animaux during his time as a piano teacher at a private music school. It was not until 20 years later that he put the work on paper, first performed in a carnival concert by a cellist.

Saint-Saëns probably wanted to prevent the work from overshadowing his 'serious' compositions by banning it. So it was a question of the desired image. Today, most people know just this work, which again features the xylophone.

What does Camille Saint-Saëns mean for music history?

Boresch: For me, in addition to the works that are still present today through performances, it is above all significant and seminal that in 1908 he presented the first music written specifically for a film - for L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise. It had not existed in this form before. It is the first score for a film.

Characteristic for the reception of Saint-Saëns seems to me to be a discussion of an aesthetic problem, namely that of the "sensual beauty" of art, which Thomas Mann lets ignite in his novel Doktor Faustus with an example of Saint-Saëns. When, at an evening gathering of musicians and music lovers, records are heard, an aria from "Samson et Dalila" is among them, which one of those present qualifies as "stupidly beautiful". The protagonist of the novel - Adrian Leverkühn - counters that the "spirit can certainly [...] be deeply seized by the animalistic melancholy of sensual beauty".

Uwe Blass (conversations from 02.11.2021)

Dr. Hans-Werner Boresch is a research associate in music education in the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of Wuppertal.

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