Born: 9 October 1835, Paris, France
Died: 16 December 1921, Algiers, Algeria
Saint-Saëns was a genius. He was a child prodigy who accompanied a Beethoven violin sonata on the piano at the age of five. Wagner considered him France’s greatest composer; Berlioz, Liszt and Gounod all thought highly of him. He had a brilliant, inquiring mind. He wrote essays on mathematics, astronomy, optics, philosophy and aesthetics. He was a world traveller.
Several of his compositions – the Danse macabre, the Carnaval des animaux, the Organ Symphony – are popular favourites.
As an opera composer, though, he was a second-rater. Samson et Dalila is the only one of his operas that’s anywhere near the mainstream repertoire. Henry VIII is excellent, and Ascanio is supposed to be great. Gounod wrote essays about both, and Charles Malherbe devoted 100 odd pages to Ascanio. Many of the others I’ve heard have left me cold; the plots are bizarre or dramatically inert, while the music lacks substance.