Liszt considered Saint-Saëns the ablest and most gifted of contemporary composers, and Berlioz called him one of the leading musicians of our time after sitting on the jury during the Exhibition of 1867 that awarded Saint-Saëns its musical prize for Les Noces de Prométhée.
As early as 1876 Eduard Hanslick, influential Austrian music critic, considered Saint-Saëns: "There is throughout the works of Saint-Saëns wit, humor, many formal qualities, a sharp liveliness of pace, and above all his compositions reveal an eminent skill in construction, an extreme facility in handling all kinds of musical expression equally."
Camille Bellaigue, Parisian biographer and music critic, wrote in 1889: "If we had to characterize Mr. Saint-Saëns in two words, we would have to call him the best musician in France. There is no other who knows his craft and his art like the composer of Henry VIII, who excels like him in all genres, and who has, I am not saying more genius, but as much talent." Jean Montargis coupled him with Rameau and Berlioz as the greatest musicians that France has known.
At the time of his death Gabriel Fauré claimed: "Numerous opinions have proclaimed Saint-Saëns the greatest musician of his time. During the first half of his long career he was, however, the contemporary of Berlioz and Gounod.
Would it not be more exact and not less glorious to designate him the most complete musician which we have ever possessed, complete to the point that we can only find a similar example among the great masters of long ago? His knowledge which knew no limits, his brilliant technique, his clear and acute sensibility, his conscience, the variety and astounding number of his works, do they not justify this title which makes him recognizable to everybody forever?"
As a national hero the French gave him a monumental funeral on 24 December 1921 only to be succeeded by years of indifference. Later, on 14 July 1930, Arthur Dandelot wrote in the preface to his biography of Saint-Saëns: "I believe I have to publish this book at this moment because I find the disfavor, after a period of sometimes extravagant exaltation, in which Saint-Saëns's music is now found, unjust and exaggerated.”
The turn of the tide occurred in the seventies. The movement towards neo-classicism and objectivity in the twentieth century has succeeded in activating this renaissance and rehabilitating him. New interest in the life and work of Saint-Saëns started with the rebirth of intellectual curiosity. Several doctoral dissertations exploring his creative accomplishments commenced in the seventies with the piano works, the symphonies, followed by the chamber music, the organ works, the concerted works and the songs. By the end of the century at least five new biographies had appeared authored by James Harding (1965), Michael Stegemann (1988), Brian Rees (1999), Stephen Studd (1999), and Jean Gallois (2004). A catalogue raisonné of his complete works was launched as well as a research guide. New issues of his essays appeared as well as translations of his articles into English and other languages.
His contractual publishers, Durand et compagnie, produced new editions of his works in France. In other countries such as Germany, Hungary, and the US (Schirmer, Kalmus) where copyright laws permitted, the publications proliferated. Now that the copyright has terminated, a comprehensive critical edition of all his work is being undertaken by the German publisher Bärenreiter. Various recording companies have created both complete works or selected works in a single category e.g. the complete symphonies, the symphonic poems, the complete piano works, the complete violin works, the complete organ works, the complete works for the cello, the concerted works for the violin, the concerted works for the piano, collections of chamber works, the operas: Samson et Dalila, Henry VIII, La Princesse Jaune, Hélène, Proserpine, Les Barbares, Étienne Marcel, Phryné, selections from Ascanio, Déjanire, Étienne Marcel, Ballets from Parysatis, Javotte and theatrical music from Antigone (1893), Andromaque (1902), La Foi (1909) as well as the first film music from L'Assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908).
In considering the work of this great musician it is necessary to bear in mind that he does not belong to the generation of Debussy and Dukas nor of Fauré and Vincent-d'Indy, but rather that of Bizet, César Franck, and Massenet, all being born approximately within the same decade. His career was one of the longest, most active, the most enriched in musical history, starting with his precocious childhood where his compositional career began at age three. His great facility, his brilliance, his prodigious memory, impressed both Liszt and Wagner early in his life.
As we assess his achievements we are struck by his consummate knowledge, his technical mastery, his ease in producing in all genres, the great range and the all-encompassing nature of his work and the creative instrumentation.
His productivity never diminished, nor was there a genre or form that he did not attempt---piano piece, mélodie, sonata, trio, quartet, quintet, septet and other kinds of chamber music, concertos, symphonies, symphonic poems, cantatas, oratorios, operas, ballets, and even film music. He was first and foremost a musician. Music was the centre of his being and the art and craft of music encompassed his life.
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