Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was a French composer, organist, music historian and writer who contributed to nearly every genre of 19th century French music. He was especially successful at writing sonatas, chamber music, symphonies and concertos but also composed oratorios and operas. Through his own compositional output and his influence on his students and successors, he is an important figure in the development of 20th century music.
Saint-Saëns, like Mozart (to whom he was often compared) was a child prodigy and made his piano performance debut at age ten. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848 studying organ with Benoist and winning the premier prix in 1851. While at the Conservatoire, he also studied composition with Halévy and took lessons in accompaniment and voice. His "Ode à Sainte-Cécile" won first prize in a competition organized by the Société Sainte-Cécile, Bordeaux, in 1852. He won the Société Sainte-Cécile competition with the Symphony Urbs Romana in 1857 and contributed to the complete edition of the works of Gluck. He later worked on editions of works by Beethoven, Liszt, Mozart, Rameau and the French clavecinists.
He won early friendship and admiration from Pauline Viardot, Gounod, Rossini and Berlioz and the admiration of Liszt. He only held one formal teaching position at the École Niédermeyer. While his tenure was brief it was influential as he taught and became life-long friends with André Messager, Eugène Gigout, and Gabriel Fauré. He became especially close with Fauré who would later teach prominent 20th century French composer, Maurice Ravel. Both Fauré and Ravel were heavily influenced by Saint-Saëns and regarded him a genius.
Saint-Saëns co-founded the Société Nationale de Musique, with Romain Bussine in 1871. Members included Alexis de Castillon, Fauré, César Franck and Eduoard Lalo. The Société encouraged the performance of music by living French composers and gave important premières of works by Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Debussy, Dukas and Ravel. He eventually broke with the Société when they decided to program the works of foreign composers.
Even as his popularity in France began to wane, he was still regarded as the greatest living French composer in the United States and Britain. Some of his best known and most successful works include "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," op. 28 (1863), the Third (“Organ”) Symphony, op. 78 (1866), the Second Piano Concerto, op. 22 (1868), "Danse macabre," op. 40 (1874), the Fourth Piano Concerto, op. 44 (1875), the oratorio "Le déluge," op. 45 (1875), the opera "Samson et Dalia," op. 47 (1877), the Third Violin Concerto, op. 61 (1880), and the suite "Le carnaval des animaux," (1886).