Parisian Characters: Camille Saint-SaŽns

   "He is a genius, says an old legend, but he is a malign genius. King of the spirits of music and song, he knows all their secrets, and even those, when we want to get close to him, of escaping to far off places, always impossible to hold on to." At the time of Ascanio, while we sought him in France, he was travelling around the Canaries. This evening, hiding behind the name of a charming, deceased musician who he is about to bring back to life, he will steal away once more from our homage. Will he now escape the clutches of my thoughts as they try to hold him, and will he slip through my fingers like a vanishing sprite, leaving nothing but "thin air"?
   A genius inspired by music, endowed with a deep sensibility - you have only, without speaking of the lyre and the harp, to glance through Ascanio, the lyre, or Samson et Delilah, the harp, - he prefers, like a Gustave Flaubert, like an Anatole France, to hide behind his riches, behind his skill as a great composer. Because nothing seems to bespeak this famous opinion more fittingly: "All the intellectual beauties to be found in a fine style, all the aspects with which it is composed are as many truths... more precious perhaps than those which make up the core of a conversation".
   He understands how to rejuvenate a formula by using it in its old sense, and to take each musical phrase, so to speak, in its etymological sense. He borrows their charms from Beethoven and Bach, or rather, as in one of his most beautiful transcriptions, bestows on Bach charms which were not his before.
   To paint in a harmony, to dramatize as a fugue, to render eternal through style; to make use of so much creative invention and genius by taking one scale rather than another to outline a melody, makes it glide all around an idea, like ancient ivy that preserves a monument from falling down; to thus confer through archaism his noble credentials to modernity; to give bit by bit to a common cause the value of an original imagination the masterly, singular, sublime quality of expression, to create from an archaism a flash of wit, a general idea, a summary of civilisation, the essence of a race, a shaft of genius burst out of the instrument or fallen from the sky; to give an English accent to a prelude, the prelude to Henri VIII, a matrimonial character to a scene, the duo between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, a Neapolitan light to a chorus, Quand vous chantez Scozzone, make fun of art in a march, Suite algťrienne, transpose the style of a Renaissance goldsmith into an opera, Ascanio; finally, to make a religion be understood, to abhor a tyrant, to pity a woman, to see Eros, to understand the Eternal, to make use of his resources not even of music but of the language of music, to amuse himself like a god and like the devil by taking up the world into music, music into harmony, all the expansiveness of the organ from the slightness of the piano, these are the expert, disconcerting, diabolic and divine games of this musical humanist who at every moment instills bursts of inventiveness and genius into what seemed to be a field bound by tradition, imitation and knowledge.


Article appeared in Le Gaulois, 14 December 1895.

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