What do you give the five-year-old who has everything? Actually Camille Saint-Saëns did not have everything. He’d lost his father, was destined to be an only child, and was being brought up in Paris by his mother and an elderly aunt who was musically inclined; she also had a penchant for insisting on maintaining the fashions of the pre-Napoleonic era, Mozart’s epoque. This caused Camille to look backwards all his life, historically, for cultural inspiration. There wasn’t a mountain of money, but enough that he could be home-schooled. At the ripe old age of three, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) made the decision to devote himself more to composition than the piano, possibly because he found it hard to believe that his tiny fingers would ever grow large enough to play even his own compositions. But they did. (His aunt played his compositions for him until he grew bigger.)
At age five he wrote out a 12-bar song in pencil, which his aunt recopied in ink. The father of the singer for whom it was intended was so enchanted that he gave Saint-Saëns the present for which he remained the most grateful for his entire life. It was the full score to Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, in two large hardbound volumes.
What would other five-year-olds do with such a gift? Sit on it to make themselves taller at the piano? Use it to keep their heads dry outside when it was raining? Combine the books with others under the dining table to make a fort?
Not young Camille. He was enthralled with the gift, and studied it every day for hours, like a huge puzzle to be deciphered. When Saint-Saëns finished, two years later, he knew everything he would ever need to know about orchestration and writing for singers, had thoroughly incorporated the clean, clear elegant style of Mozart, which would always remain the strongest influence in his own compositions—despite living through the Romantic and Impressionistic Eras—and having Franz Liszt as a good friend, and mentoring young musicians into the twentieth century.
Though the musical styles of Europe that Saint-Saëns was exposed to changed radically during his long life, from Mendelssohn to Stravinsky, not to mention the political changes in France, from a monarchy to a republic, his own style changed little. Though he was the first major composer to write for a motion picture, he was considered stylistically old hat by the end, not that this is of any consequence today. His opera, Samson and Delilah, his third violin concerto, his cello concerto, various other smaller works, as well as his Carnival of the Animals live on today, irrespective of subsequent changes in musical taste.
Saint-Saëns writes about receiving the Mozart score at age five: “When I think about it, the gift of such a present to a five-year-old child seems a particularly rash action … yet never can there have been a happier inspiration. Every day, with that miraculous ease of assimilation which is the dominant faculty of childhood, I immersed myself in Don Giovanniand almost unconsciously I imbibed its music, broke myself into score reading, and became acquainted with the different voices and instruments … when you study the score closely, how unremarkable are the means employed! Do all these marvels amount to nothing more than simple intervals of an octave, a few bars’ repetition in the bass of a very obvious rhythm, syncopations (which everyone uses), a little figure on the fourth string of the second violins, and those scales, those ‘terrifying scales’ which are so restrained and never go beyond an octave? It is true that these details seem of little or no account in themselves. Their value rises out of their placing, reciprocal harmony, contrasts, and overall balance. In these lie the style, the secret of genius.”
Thank goodness no one gave him a truck.