Musical Notes: A proposal: Saint-Saens - the movie

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS a time some years ago when Hollywood was fixated on the lives of the great Romantic composers. Success would be illustrated by shots of the wheels of express trains roaring across the screen while the soundtrack played the urgent sections of a musical score. A masterpiece, written amidst a tale of emotional strain, would achieve a final triumph to standing ovations and moist eyes.

Today the lives of composers and artists come under closer psychological scrutiny on-screen and questions of failure and success have become more complicated. The disappearance of Camille Saint-Saens from the celebrity he once enjoyed - save for a few popular works - has robbed him from such posthumous fame, though it is certain that his reactions to it would have been more caustic than most.

His pianoforte debut in 1846, in Paris at the age of 10, survived in legend throughout his life. He toured Europe as its greatest organist and one of its three greatest pianists. As composer he endured opposition and bitter criticism in the peculiarly fevered Paris of his day. Fellow critics would openly express the hope that his opera Le Timbre d'Argent from the pen of "a grotesque dwarf" would be hissed off the stage. After years of frustration his carefully wrought masterpiece Samson and Delilah was eventually produced in Weimar under Liszt; only four Frenchmen were present. It had to wait a further 15 years, applauded everywhere but Paris, before it was admitted to the stage of the prestigious Paris Opera.

But eventually he enjoyed a popular and critical acclamation whose dimensions probably only Hollywood could finance on screen. At the Arena in the French town of Beziers, 10,000 spectators surged down the aisles cheering his score for the verse-drama Dejanire, with its spectacular scenic resurrection of the Persian Empire and the huge forces he conducted: the military bands and an orchestra with 18 harps, placed against the skyline, and an array of 25 trumpets.

In 1915, when he was representing wartime France at the San Francisco Exhibition, word spread that the composer of the "Organ" Symphony was present; there were spontaneous calls for him to appear and eventually the whole audience of 4,000 rose to cheer and look in wonderment upon a figure whose long life extended back almost to days of Beethoven and Schubert.

And what of the psychological interest? The young Saint-Saens had proposed to Augusta Holmes, the beautiful and talented singer- composer admired by Liszt and Wagner and a host of poets and artists. His proposal had been sweetly ignored. Married later to a girl he hardly knew, on the suggestion of her brother (the situation re-surfaced obliquely in his opera Proserpine), the union collapsed after the deaths of two sons, his only children, one resulting from a dramatic and tragic fall from a high apartment window.

After the death of his masterful mother, a life of constant travel ensued. At one point he disappeared incognito to the Canary Islands. Press curiosity about his whereabouts was on the scale later attached to Lord Lucan, for the premiere of his Ascanio was a prime event of the season at the Paris Opera. In old age his relationships with his valets, the presence of young attendant Arabs, and his embargo on publishing his correspondence gave rise to the kind of rumours which it is the current fashion to explore.

Nor would the soundtrack disappoint. A treasury of concertos, operas and festival cantatas remain little known or totally neglected. He was also, of course, the first serious composer ever to write a film score, in the early days of the cinema: The Murder of the Duke of Guise. This alone should surely ensure him specially sympathetic treatment from some generous studio.

Brian Rees is the author of `Camille Saint-Saens: a life' (Chatto & Windus, 25 February, pounds 25)