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Is there a composer whose life spanned a period of comparable musical upheaval? Born eight years after Beethoven’s death, Saint- Saëns lived until the year in which Schoenberg formulated his 12-note system. In himself he is a most engaging figure, a child prodigy, a polymath, champion of classical forms, the greatest organist in the world (according to Liszt).

These 38 essays cover diverse aspects of Saint-Saëns’ life and work, arranged into sections entitled ‘Saint-Saëns the Person’, ‘…the Musician’, ‘…the Globetrotter’, ‘…Aesthetics Past and Present’, and ‘…in the 20th century’.

In the third part we meet Saint-Saëns the insatiable traveller. His trips were often undertaken for health reasons, as the Paris winters aggravated his lung condition. Among the favoured destinations were Algeria (19 visits), Italy (17 visits), Egypt (16) and the Canary Islands (9). He also visited the UK 22 times, but many of his trips (totalling 179, to 27 countries) were chiefly promotional, rather than recreational.

Other aspects of Saint-Saëns covered in this engrossing volume are his mélodies, his dialogue with d’Indy (respectful even in disagreement), his rivalry with Massenet (a more successful operatic composer), and his championing of Rameau. His relationship with fi lm began with L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908), one of the fi rst to feature an original score by a distinguished composer.

In Part Two – ‘Saint-Saëns the Musician’ – Dana Gooley provides an overview of the composer’s performing activities. Many critics noticed a coolness and detachment in his playing of Mozart and Beethoven, but as he began to include works by Liszt and other romantics apparently there was a noticeable change. The final, and longest, essay here is by Leon Botstein, who aptly compares Saint-Saëns with Bruch and Glazunov. Each composer produced ‘an extensive varied catalogue of superbly written works’ and earned a worldwide reputation, but failed to ‘establish a persuasive originality’.

This study of a versatile, tasteful and often endearing composer, and a serious, playful and sometimes prickly man, may be thoroughly recommended.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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