Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Parrot

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

We mark the birth on October 9, 1835 – 188 years ago today – of Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, in Paris.  He died in that magnificent city on Beethoven’s 151st birthday – on December 16, 1921 – at the age of 86.

The Nose

Physically, the adult Camille Saint-Saëns was – literally – an odd bird.  The music critic Pierre Lalo has left us with this description:

“He was short and strangely resembled a parrot: the same sharply curved profile; a beak-like, hooked nose; [with] lively, restless, piercing eyes.  He strutted like a bird and talked rapidly, precipitously, with a curiously affected lisp.” 

In fact, Saint-Saens was as famous for his nose as Beethoven was for his hair.  When he concertized in the United States during the 1906-1907 season, Philip Hale wrote in the Boston Symphony program book:

“His eyes are almost level with his nose.  His eagle-beak would have excited the admiration of Sir Charles Napier, who once exclaimed, ‘Give me a man with plenty of nose!’”

Saint-Saëns in 1906, at the age of 71
Saint-Saëns in 1906, at the age of 71

Please: heaven forbid I should be accused of nasal-shaming here; we should just know about Saint-Saëns second most distinguishing feature before we move on.  His principal distinguishing feature was his prodigious genius, a genius – like that of Felix Mendelssohn – for pretty much anything in which he took an interest.

The Prodigy

Like Felix Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns was an absurd child prodigy.  

He began playing the piano at the age of two.  He completed his first composition – for piano – on March 22, 1839, when he was not quite three-and-a-half years old.  

Saint-Saëns in 1846, at the time of his public debut as a pianist
Saint-Saëns in 1846, at the time of his public debut as a pianist

He made his public “debut” as a pianist at Paris’ vaunted Salle Pleyel in 1846, when he was still ten years old.  His program included piano concerti by both Mozart and Beethoven.   For an encore he invited the audience to choose any one of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas which he offered to play from memory.

That’s just stupid.

When the 18-year-old Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 1 received its premiere, the astonished – and always quotable – Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) remarked:

“He knows everything but lacks inexperience.” 

(“Lacks inexperience.” Think about it.)

A few years later the redoubtable Franz Liszt heard Saint-Saëns play the organ and publicly declared him to be the greatest organist in the world. …

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