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Camille Saint-Saëns began as a child prodigy and was acclaimed in his lifetime as the incarnation of French genius. His was one of the longest careers in musical history, stretching from the traditions of Beethoven to the innovations of the twentieth century, including one of the earliest film scores. As a virtuoso pianist he achieved international fame, while Liszt proclaimed him the world’s greatest organist.
A prolific composer, there is much more to him than his best-known work, the witty Carnival of the Animals, of which he forbade performances in his lifetime. Among his most notable achievements are the opera Samson et Delila and the Organ Symphony, while the Danse Macabre, second piano concerto and first cello concerto remain much loved.
As a young man, he supported the ‘new music’ of Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz and introduced the symphonic poem into French music. He championed an up-and-coming generation of French composers, most notably Fauré, and played a unique part in transforming French taste from grand opera and operetta to the classical forms of symphony and chamber music, at the same time reviving interest in the music of Bach and Rameau.
His personal life was combative, tragic and surrounded by rumour: as a boy during the Revolution of 1848, serving as a National Guard in the war of 1870, and eventually becoming something of an icon of the Third Republic, used in diplomacy as a symbol of French culture.
This fascinating book (Chatto & Windus 1999) places his long and controversial career in a turbulent period when music, no less than politics, was undergoing sensational and often stormy change.
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