Wednesday book: Missing out on the macabre

CAMILLE SAINT-SAeNS: A LIFE BY BRIAN REES, CHATTO & WINDUS, pounds 30

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee