Once described as the French Mendelssohn , Saint-Saëns was a talented and precocious child, with interests by no means confined to music. As a child he had lessons with Stamaty and Boëly, and made his debut as a pianist at the age of ten. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, where he was taught by Halévy. His extraordinary gifts won him the admiration of Gounod, Rossini, Berlioz and especially Liszt, who described him as the world’s greatest organist. Upon leaving the Conservatoire, he became organist at the Eglise Ste-Merry, and in 1857, at the Madeleine in Paris, a post he held until 1877. He also taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer between 1861 and 1865, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré and Messager.
With only these jobs, Saint-Saëns spent a lot of time composing large numbers of works. He also travelled widely in Europe, South America and North Africa, and organised concerts of Liszt’s symphonic poems. He wrote on various musical, scientific and historical subjects, and tried to revive interest in older music, particularly that of J. S. Bach, Handel and Rameau. In 1871 he founded, together with Romain Bussine, the Société Nationale de Musique to revive the artistic and cultural value of French music. He also performed on the piano, being especially praised for his performances of Mozart.
Among some of his more notable works are some sonatas, especially the first each for violin and cello, some chamber music such as the Piano Quartet Op. 41, the symphonies, especially No.3, the ‘Organ’ Symphony (1886) and the concertos, including No. 3 for Violin and No.4 for Piano. Saint-Saëns also wrote some large-scale ‘dramatic’ works, including four tone poems and 13 operas, the most popular of which is Samson et Dalila (1877). One of his best-loved works is the suite Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886) (The Carnival of the Animals). Written as a joke, he forbade its performance during his lifetime, only allowing one movement, Le Cygne (The Swan) to be played. The music of his last years is said to have heavily influenced both Fauré and Ravel. Saint-Saëns also undertook extensive tours in Europe, the United States, South America and the far east. By the time of his death in 1921, however, his popularity in France had waned and many of his works were no longer played.