Poor Saint-Saëns! He was blessed from childhood with a polished facility of utterance that made most of his fellow composers (Ravel excepted) seem like hysterical tyros by comparison. But somehow, even at the apex of his renown, Camille Saint-Saëns remained eminently patronizable. Just how high his repute was during this century’s early decades, within France above all, bears remembering. Saint-Saëns—he died in 1921, having exercised his creativity for a record-breaking eighty-two years—lived to see a statue of himself unveiled at Dieppe, outside a museum that displayed, to edify pilgrims, such relics as his great-aunt’s pin-cushion. Gounod called him in complete seriousness “the French Beethoven.” The novelist Camille Mauclair likened Saint-Saëns’s artistic achievements to Racine’s; in 1919 a Parisian critic, Jean Montargis, ranked Saint-Saëns alongside Berlioz and Rameau as one of...


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