Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Saint-Saëns and the Stage

Hugh Macdonald

Ever since I developed a passion for French music and started working on Berlioz and then Bizet, I was constantly aware of the formidable figure of Saint-Saëns at the end of the nineteenth century, contributing to every branch of music and regularly heard in concert halls and, thanks to Samson et Dalila, in opera houses too. Is that his only opera, I wondered.
No, of course it’s not, but it’s the only one that has held its place in a period when all his other operas have been out of sight. When I realised that there are twelve operas, more or less, and that they were all successful in his lifetime, some of them performed all over Europe and often revived, I set myself the challenge of looking more closely at his works for the stage (operas, ballet, plays, etc) and found, not at all to my surprise, that they are very varied in style, content and scale, consistently polished and musically inventive, and never banal. Saint-Saëns was a formidable musician, a virtuoso pianist and organist, conductor, teacher, writer, poet and antiquarian, with a passion for travel and literature, who never wrote a piece of music that was not perfectly crafted, well written for instruments and voices, and full of character.
When he died in 1921, the jazz age had arrived and even Debussy seemed out of date, so it’s not surprising that Saint-Saëns’s music was shelved. Most of the operas were not played or recorded for a very long time, and they escaped the abundant recording of operas on LP records. Only in the last ten years have there been serious plans to record these operas, which has revealed the wealth of music to be discovered. By the time the 2021 centenary arrives we will be in a much better position to see that he was not just a master of biblical opera, but could excel in comedy, in large-scale open-air pageants, and in grand historical opera of a characteristic French type. He even wrote a film score, the first music specially written for the moving screen.
I hope that my book will fill a gap and draw attention to the wealth of good and highly approachable music that few people have ever heard, and encourage the production of high-class recordings. Only with recordings can we get to know it better, since it is unlikely that all the operas will be revived on stage. Some of them certainly will, and there are more frequent revivals every year, but in the crowded world of baroque, classical and romantic opera, not every voice can possibly be heard, even the best.
By writing this book I have satisfied my own curiosity about a large body of music I did not know before, and also, I hope, provided enthusiasts with a chance to get to know these operas and be well informed when listening to them.

Saint-Saëns and the Stage by Hugh Macdonald

Saint-Saëns and the Stage by Hugh Macdonald

About The Author

Hugh Macdonald

Hugh Macdonald's distinguished career has included appointments at the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of Glasgow and Washington University, St Louis. He ...

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