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SAINT-SAËNS, Camille (1835-1921)

Having lost his father early like Charles Gounod, Saint-Saëns was raised by his mother, and his great-aunt, who gave him his first piano lessons before sending him to Stamaty, then Maleden. Extraordinarily precocious, he gave his first concert performance as early as 1846. Two years later, he was at the Paris Conservatoire, taking classes by Benoist (organ) then Halévy (composition). Although he twice failed to win the Prix de Rome, he received numerous awards throughout his career, as well as various institutional appointments, such as his election to the Académie in 1878. As a virtuoso, who held the post of organist at the church of La Madeleine (1857-1877), he impressed his contemporaries. As a prolific, cultured composer, he worked hard to revive the music of some of the great masters of the past, helping to prepare editions of Gluck and Rameau. An eclectic man, he championed both Wagner and Schumann while, as a teacher, his pupils included Gigout, Fauré and Messager. As a critic, he wrote many articles indicative of a liberal, perceptive mind, despite a fondness for the principles of academicism. It was this independence and strong-mindedness that led him to found the Société Nationale de Musique in 1871, and then resign from it in 1886. Admired for his orchestral works, which combined an entirely classical rigour with a style not lacking in innovation (five piano concertos, five symphonies including one, the third, with organ, four symphonic poems, including the famous Danse macabre), he was a composer of international repute, particularly owing to his operas Samson et Dalila (1877) and Henry VIII (1883).