Though each by then was already famous, it was only after the fall of the Second Empire that Victor Hugo (1802–85) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) hit their respective strides. 

“One cannot resist an idea whose time has come,” said Hugo in Histoire d’un Crime (1877), clearly speaking from experience. He had a genius for causes: by his thirtieth birthday, he was not only the leading light of French Romanticism and an opponent of capital punishment, but also an impassioned architectural preservationist who prevented almost single-handedly the destruction of important châteaux and medieval monuments. His 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, ignited a movement that spared the cathedral, then in disrepair, from demolition. Around the same time, he also began to draw, and he eventually left a substantial visual legacy apart from his verse and novels. But it was Hugo’s evolution from monarchist to republican politician and social reformer during the years when France was ridding itself of the throne that elevated him from celebrity to national hero and earned him a tomb in the Panthéon.

Posterity has not been nearly as kind to Saint-Saëns. He, too, had a glittering early career, famous throughout Europe not only for his abilities as a musician—pianist, organist, composer, and conductor—but also for his witty prose. Dazzlingly erudite, astronomy and zoology were merely the alphabetical endpoints of his numerous extramusical interests. Saint-Saëns, however, fell victim to other ideas whose time had come. “[T]he wind turned,” he wrote of his own music in 1904. “Critics would not acknowledge anything that was not original and avant-garde. What until then was considered revolutionary was now derided as reactionary.” Not only was Saint-Saëns’s music viewed as hopelessly passé, it attracted an astonishing degree of invective, as when the English critic John Runciman, writing in London’s Saturday Review in 1898, described it as “the worst, most rubbishy kind of rubbish.” Unfair and unwarranted, that pall still tinges Saint-Saëns’s reputation.

But, like Hugo, Saint-Saëns could rally people to a cause. After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, he founded the Société nationale de musique, an organization dedicated to liberating French music from its narrow focus on opera and art song. In addition to reintroducing French audiences to masters like Bach, Handel, and Rameau, and, mirabile dictu, espousing Wagner’s music, he helped to establish the modern French school, inspiring composers with styles as varied as Bizet, Lalo, Delibes, Massenet, and Franck.

The different paths taken by Saint-Saëns and Hugo are now the subject of three exhibitions in Paris. One describes Hugo’s path to the Panthéon,1 while the second is devoted to his drawings.2 Saint-Saëns is profiled in an exhibition at the Opéra Garnier on the centenary of his death, sponsored by the Paris Opéra and the Bibliothèque Nationale.3 This Saint-Saëns show is especially interesting given its focus on his operas, which, apart from Sampson et Dalila, had been forgotten for over a century save for a few recent revivals.

“La liberté au Panthéon,” the first of the Hugo exhibitions, is located next to Hugo’s tomb in the crypt of the Panthéon, where many of France’s great secular heroes are buried. The exhibition has two main themes: Hugo’s long crusade for social justice and the transformation of the church of Sainte-Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, into the Panthéon. 

Hugo’s burial on June 1, 1885 was nothing less than an apotheosis: it was probably the largest funeral since Napoléon’s own interment. Though Hugo wanted to be buried in a modest grave in Père Lachaise, the exhibition describes how, within hours of his death, the National Assembly voted to give him the biggest of all possible upgrades.

Although by that point France was a republic, Hugo’s obsequies were a royal burial in everything but name. The catafalque, positioned under the Arc de Triomphe, was no less than six stories high. What followed the eleven o’clock start was a procession of over two million people—larger than the population of Paris at the time—slowly moving from the Étoile to the Panthéon with the last mourners arriving almost ten hours after the start. And we see a small oil painted the following day showing the Panthéon swamped behind behind mounds of wreaths of the sort that became familiar to modern viewers with the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

The exhibition reveals how Hugo’s popularity grew over his lifetime. In 1829 he wrote Le dernier jour d’un condamné, his anti–death penalty novel. In 1830, when riots broke out over his play Hernani, he became the acknowledged leader of the Romantics’ search for absolute artistic freedom. In 1849, campaigning on the issues of press freedom, free public education, and universal suffrage, he was elected to the National Assembly, representing Paris. After Louis-Philippe was deposed by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, however, Hugo called for armed resistance to the new regime, and found himself a marked man. He fled into exile in 1851, first to Belgium, then to the island of Jersey, and finally to Guernsey, returning to France only after Louis-Napoléon abdicated in 1870. 

While Hugo stayed true to his reformist principles throughout his exile—their highest literary expression was in his 1864 Les Misérables—some of his drawings from this time suggest that he was not always optimistic about the future. The ambiguous Ma destinée (1857) shows a huge crashing wave while Exil (1858) shows a tiny sailboat headed into a black void. By 1880, however, as a member of the Sénat, he had the satisfaction of helping to pass laws that provided for universal education and amnesty for the participants in the Paris Commune. On his birthday in 1881, some six hundred thousand people honored him by parading in front of his house.

Why was Hugo’s funeral such an event? Cemeteries, as de Gaulle wryly observed, are full of irreplaceable men. The answer, the exhibition suggests, lies in the confluence of Hugo’s reformism with the political needs of the Third Republic after it had seen off France’s Bourbon kings and Napoleonic emperors. Hugo’s burial next to Rousseau and Voltaire was, the exhibition shows, a re-assertion of Enlightenment principles and the Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man while establishing the Panthéon as a temple for those ideals. 

In recent years, Hugo’s drawings, done originally for his family and inner circle, have attracted interest for their oneiric and macabre effect. Hugo never used a dedicated studio space—his art was done on any convenient table—and the exhibition’s curator seizes on this to imagine the drawings on display as sourced in “metaphorical ateliers” of travel, friendship, love, and humanity, with each “studio” occupying its own space in the exhibition. Many drawings in “Dessins—dans l’intimité du génie” illustrate the same concerns that informed his writing, for example the hanged man in his harrowing Ecce (le pendu) (1854) and the “Witch” caricatures at the conclusion of the exhibition. 

We see how Hugo developed his initial style when he and his longtime mistress, Juliette Drouet, traveled during their summer holidays. In 1836, they were joined by Célestin Nanteuil, Hugo’s friend and the illustrator for several of his works. The exhibition’s “friendship atelier” shows how Nanteuil influenced Hugo to work in a freer, more imaginative style, as with the somber Souvenir du Neckar (1849). After his election to the National Assembly that year, Hugo set up house with Juliette. There, in a burst of creative energy, he produced some of his most memorable work: the Souvenir du forêt noir (1850), Saint-Paul (1850), and Gallia (1850). 

The most uncomfortable part of the exhibition is Hugo’s atelier of “humanity”—or rather inhumanity. It is composed of Hugo’s sketch cycle Le poème de la sorcière (The Poem of the Witch), forty-five drawings divided into of four sets of caricatures (“The Judges,” “Torture,” “Parts of the Trial,” and “The Crowd Witnessing the Execution”) showing humanity at its basest. Their simplicity suggests that each took little more than a minute to dash off. They show smug judges, vindictive priests, the exhausted but strangely peaceful witch, her bored executioners, and, above all, the bestial expressions on bystanders’ faces. A minute seems short, but Hugo is so full of fury that it is plenty time for him to say what must be said. 

“I am an eclectic spirit,” said Saint-Saëns. “It is perhaps a great defect, but impossible for me to correct.” But he defended his artistic principles to the point of tactlessness. As a young organist, he performed Bach and his own contrapuntal works to dismayed parishioners hoping for something a little bubblier. When gently criticized by the abbé at La Madeleine for not instead following the popular custom of improvising on popular tunes from the Opéra Comique during Mass, Saint-Saëns replied that he would gladly do so when the abbé himself “recited comic opera verses from the pulpit, but until then . . .” 

In his middle age, he was one of the first pilgrims to visit Bayreuth, and he subsequently promoted Wagner’s music as an alternative to popular standards, only to turn against it a few years later when Wagnerolatry was overwhelming the French style. A reserved but technically prodigious performer who could transcribe at sight a full orchestral score on the piano, his lofty musical standards were no impediment to creating the hugely popular Organ Symphony, the Danse Macabre, and the Carnival of the Animals. And while condemned by many critics, his works remain far more popular than those of Debussy and Ravel, to whom he is so often unfavorably compared. Far from his caricature as an ultranationalist composer of light, unadventurous music, “Un ésprit libre” shows Saint-Saëns a highly creative personality whose music and writings placed him for years in the vanguard of French modernism.

“Un ésprit libre” takes us through the eighty years of Saint-Saëns’ public life from his child prodigy youth (the greatest since Mozart, one critic thought) to the years before his death, when he wrote one of the world’s first film scores. As a student at the Conservatoire, Saint-Saëns’s talent was recognized by Charles Gounod and Pauline Viardot, who opened doors for him. Saint-Saëns was so accomplished that Berlioz described him as “only lacking inexperience.” 

By the time the Second Empire fell, the great personalities of French music had passed from the scene. Saint-Saëns founded his Société nationale de musique to push for new ideas: performances of works by then disregarded composers such as Bach, Handel, and Rameau along with the new generation of French composers, as well as his own classically inspired but forward-looking compositions. Saint-Saëns wintered in North Africa and other warmer climes for his health; the sounds and colors of those places brought a singular exoticism to his music. 

He also wrote an enormous amount of music for voice. “However great the interest in orchestral music,” he wrote, “the real musical life is in the theater.” His great Samson et Dalila (1877) was an unexpected success, and Saint-Saëns wrote twelve more operas, with a substantial part of the exhibition dedicated to them. Several—La princesse jaune (1872), Le timbre d’argent (1877), Proserpine (1887), Ascanio (1890), and Les Barbares (1901)—have been recorded on the Bru Zane label, and wonderful works they are. Extracts play in the background while viewers ca inspect scores, stage designs, programs, and a very amusing affiche for the staging of Henri VIII showing Saint-Saëns as the axe-wielding Henry surrounded by the heads of his singers and collaborators—a suggestion that, despite his great musical talent, his “people skills” somewhat lagged. 

While Hugo and Saint-Saëns knew and respected each other, their relationship was not the warmest. After Hugo’s death, Saint-Saëns wrote that he revered Hugo as a “demi-god”—but certainly had odd ways of showing it. Welcomed by Hugo at their first meeting, Saint-Saëns blurted out that he would much prefer to be somewhere else, a bévue that Hugo laughed off. A few years later, Hugo offered him the opportunity to write an opera based on Esmeralda, his heroine in Notre-Dame de Paris. On that occasion, Saint-Saëns not only played dumb but even severed relations for a time. Hugo was not the first to feel the sting of Saint-Saëns’ brusque side, nor the last. “I like good company,” Saint-Saëns is reported to have said, “but I like hard work even more.” And in that vein, one wonders if the animus against Saint-Saëns’s music may, in part, be due to an animus against Saint-Saëns the man.

  1.    “Victor Hugo: La liberté au Panthéon,” opened at the Place du Panthéon, Paris, on May 19 and remains on view through September 26, 2021.
  2.   “Victor Hugo: Dessins—dans l’intimité du génie,” opened at the Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris, on June 10 and remains on view through November 21, 2021.
  3.   “Saint-Saëns: un esprit libre,” opened at the Bibliothèque de l’Opéra, Opéra Garnier, Paris, on June 25 and remains on view through October 10, 2021.

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