Everyone remembers those “What I did on my summer vacation” assignments teachers would dole out at the beginning of September. Back in the analog days, we might have passed around some pictures or postcards, and perhaps we even had a souvenir or two for show and tell. These days we can post an album of pictures on Facebook instantly, Instagram every vacation meal, and tweet about the wonders of nature. And while the craftiest among us still scrapbook on actual paper, the opportunity to reflect on our travels and adventures seems to be something of a lost art. We take our trip, write and comment on it in real time, and when we return, it’s immediately back to business-as-usual. When I was a child, it was always so fun to relive the vacation a few weeks later when our rolls of film finally got developed. But that feeling of reminiscence, of looking back at those travels, those adventures, is leaving us. Back before cable and Netflix and the Internet, I remember making popcorn and sitting down with the family to look at slides of vacations past. I suppose I can still look back at my own recent travels, but that means me heading back to Facebook or Twitter and scrolling through pictures on my phone. Doesn’t quite have the same romanticism, does it?
Camille Saint-Saëns became a great fan of travel on his first visit to Italy when he was in his early twenties. Because he didn’t have our modern conveniences, he commemorated some of his more fascinating journeys by writing music inspired by the places he visited along the way. We have one such piece on LACO’s opening concert this season. The Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed “Egyptian” because Saint-Saëns composed the work while in Luxor. (He often spent winters in Egypt.) Not only was he inspired by the landscapes and the grand monuments, he wove music that he heard into the new composition. In the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto, we hear a song that Saint-Saëns heard while sailing on the Nile. What a wonderful way to reflect on that experience. Much better than flipping through a photo album!
In 1875, more than twenty years before he composed that Fifth Piano Concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns, then almost forty, married nineteen-year-old Marie Truffot. His mother, Clemence, did not approve of the union. The marriage produced two sons, however, both died—one from a childhood illness, one from an accident—within six weeks of each other. Six years after the wedding, Saint-Saëns simply left his wife while they were on holiday, and never saw her again. He did not remarry, but instead found a surrogate family with fellow composer Gabriel Fauré, to whom he was something of a father figure or “benevolent uncle,” as some have described him. Saint-Saëns was deeply devoted to his mother Clemence, who became a widow just three months after the birth of Camille. Clemence and her aunt, Charlotte Masson, raised the young boy by themselves. In fact, it was Masson who gave young Camille his first piano lessons at the age of two and a half. Masson died in 1872, and Clemence in 1888. Once they were gone, Camille perhaps felt that he had no reason to stay in one place anymore. His travel increased, and his writing slowed down a bit. Saint-Saëns became a mostly solitary traveler. Only his manservant Gabriel and his beloved dogs accompanied him on his trips.
In addition to spending time in Egypt, Saint-Saëns was quite fond of Algeria. It was a French colony at the time, and a popular travel spot for Europeans. When Saint-Saëns was devastated over the death of his mother, it was to Algeria that he fled, to help him find the strength to return to his life. He was comfortable there, and indeed, this place filled him with life and ideas. The Suite algerienne (1880) was written on the occasion of Algeria becoming a Department of Metropolitan France. He also composed a fantasy for piano and orchestra called Africa in 1891.
In addition to lengthy stays in North Africa, Saint-Saëns traveled through Europe and South America. He composed a patriotic hymn called Partido Colorado for Uruguay’s national holiday. He undertook many concert tours, playing series of concerts everywhere from the Canary Islands to Scandinavia to Russia. He became friends with Tchaikovsky. He came to the United States after the turn of the century. His popularity in his native France was waning, but the Americans revered him as France’s greatest living composer. He performed in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In 1915, he composed an orchestral piece called “Hail! California.” He was also a favorite in Great Britain, where he studied the works of Handel and played for Queen Victoria. The Philharmonic Society commissioned his Third Symphony, and he was made a Commander of the Victorian Order.
Saint-Saëns’ travels gave him a unique perspective on composition, and allowed him to see the value in music that was familiar and that which was exotic. This does not mean that he liked everything. Far from it. His thorny attitudes towards some of the composers around the turn of the century made him some enemies. He spoke out against Debussy’s Impressionism and, during the First World War, he called for a ban on German music (especially Wagner). His controversial views aside, it is interesting to hear the music of a person so well traveled, and so curious about other cultures. His experience of the world certainly enriched his own art, and helped make him the important historical figure we know today. It almost makes me want to write music to commemorate my summer vacation…or I could just go back and read my tweets.