Wednesday book: Missing out on the macabre

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The Independent Culture
HOW MUCH do we know about Camille Saint-Saens? Well, everyone knows he wrote Le carnaval des animaux, and opera-lovers still flock to his patchily magnificent Samson et Dalila, but beyond those works - and maybe Danse macabre - lies a cloud of unknowing. For a household name, Saint-Saens remains a remarkably well-kept secret.

For this, the musical establishment is partly to blame. For the man who systematically rubbished his younger colleague Debussy - and then had the nerve to outlive him - no grave could be too deep. As one music historian brutally put it: "In 1921, Saint-Saens died, full of years and malice." He may never have composed "great" music, but he was extraordinarily prolific, and much of his work was indisputably good. Le carnaval des animaux was a private joke tossed off on holiday, and its success so mortified him that he forbade its performance as long as he lived.

In these barrel-scraping days, it's only a matter of time before he gets his reappraisal, his revival and his re-interment with a six-gun salute.

But six-gun salutes were also part of the problem, for Saint-Saens was the French musical equivalent of our English poet laureate, and posthumous oblivion is always the fate of those who become too familiar. Moreover, the First World War turned him into a fire-eating patriot, giving concerts for war charities, calling for a ban on German music, and publishing a piano accompaniment for his own translation of the British national anthem. Born a mere eight years after the death of Beethoven, Saint-Saens could never have adjusted to the fractured uncertainties of the age of Schoenberg and Freud.

Brian Rees begins his biography with a ringing defence of Saint-Saens's honest populism. In contrast to the outspokenly elitist Debussy, who opposed programme notes and feared that the gramophone might make art "too democratic", Saint-Saens eagerly embraced these things, and made a point of giving concerts in culture-starved industrial towns.

His music was frequently used for silent films, and when the talkies emerged he was the first major composer to lend his talents, jotting down musical ideas as the images unfurled. Co-founding a society to support home-grown talent, he helped create the great efflorescence of French music around the turn of the century.

He was a great teacher and bringer-on of talent: without his encouragement, Gabriel Faure might never have composed a note. And as a musician Saint- Saens was remarkable from the outset, learning to play at two-and-a-half, being hailed as the new Mozart when he was 10, going on to become the second most celebrated pianist in the world after his friend Franz Liszt. To increase his manual agility, he sent electrical shocks up and down his arms; while travelling by train he practised with a silent keyboard balanced on his valet's knees.

But he was nice to these valets; some say they were lovers too. This brings us to the central Saint-Saens mystery, which centres on his tragically repressed personality. Here is the real challenge facing biographers, and Rees fails it miserably. It's not so much that he excludes facts - though many remain locked away in archives. It's more that he fails to grasp their import. Singing falsetto in pink tights at soirees he dismisses as a typical "19th-century revel". The extraordinary moment when Saint- Saens and Tchaikovsky - both middle-aged - did an impromptu ballet together on the Paris Conservatoire stage is recorded without comment.

Rees recognises the trauma the composer suffered when his two small children died within six weeks of each other, but he seems only dimly aware of the composer's stunted emotional life. Consider this letter, which Saint- Saens received when he was 35 and was suffering understandable pre-concert nerves: "Dear Friend, You make me ill with your fears. I used to think you a man; you are merely a coward... I thought I had brought up a man. I have raised a mere girl of degenerate stock."

The author of this tender missive was the composer's mother, with whom he was still living. No biographer could ask for a clearer signpost, yet for Rees this merely "casts a harsher light upon her supervision of his career".

What made Saint-Saens leave his wife? "A fit of bad temper," says the incurious Rees. Why did the composer spend so much of his later life in Algiers? Rees piously suggests it was for health reasons, and tells us nothing about how he passed his time there, or with whom. Rees does hint at the weirdness of Saint-Saens's relationship with his pianist-protege Leopold Godowsky, but he prefers to explain their bizarre menage in terms of mere artistic compatibility.

Inside this fat, bland book with its exhaustive history and laboured musicology, you sense a thin, mean book waiting to be let loose. The story it told would dwell firmly in the realm of morbid psychology.