“I produce music as an apple tree produces apples.” Camille Saint-Saëns’ life spanned more than eight decades and his musical harvest was rich. Born in 1835, he showed immense early talent, making his official public debut at the Salle Pleyel at the age of just ten, performing concertos by Beethoven and that other famous prodigy, Mozart. Indeed, the American critic Harold C Schonberg described him as “the most remarkable child prodigy in history, and that includes Mozart”. As a composer, Saint-Saëns was a classicist – his musical gods were Bach and Mozart – but there’s a crispness about his writing that still feels remarkably fresh.

Camille Saint-Saëns, photographed in 1910 by Pierre Petit
© Public domain

Listen to the charming Tarantelle for flute and clarinet, composed in 1857 and presented by Rossini, no less, at one of his musical soirées in Paris. The audience acclaimed the work, assuming it to be by Rossini himself, who lapped up the praise before revealing that the composer was actually the young pianist. 

Saint-Saëns was a young pioneer, the first Frenchman to compose piano concertos as well as writing symphonies at a time when they were regarded with suspicion in France (too Germanic a form for fashionable Parisian tastes). His chamber music influenced later composers such as Fauré and Ravel. Saint-Saëns was also a polymath, a student of astronomy and archaeology, and a keen traveller, often visiting north Africa during the winter months. In 1870 he co-founded the Société nationale de musique, with the aim of promoting French music, although he was forced out by Vincent d’Indy in 1886 when he objected to proposals to open up the society to non-French music and musicians. 

By the time he reached his dotage, Saint-Saëns was seen as a reactionary, his music doggedly conservative. And yet he embraced new forms and technologies, making early piano roll recordings such as his improvisations on a theme from his most famous opera, Samson et Dalila (above), and even composing what is often cited as the first original score for a silent film, L'Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908, below). 

Saint-Saëns remained active as a composer, the sonatas for oboe, clarinet and bassoon all written in his final year of his long life. But here are our top ten works you really should know. 

1Symphony no. 3 in C minor, “Organ”

Saint-Saëns final symphony – his fifth (two earlier ones are unnumbered) – includes an obbligato organ part, initially quite subtle, but then making its full effect in the finale. That Maestoso finale is a gloriously uplifting theme, decorated with rippling piano four-hands. The theme gained enormous popularity when used in the 1995 film Babe.  

2Samson et Dalila

Saint-Saëns composed 13 operas, but only his biblical blockbuster Samson et Dalila is performed with anything approaching regularity. There are places where it feels more oratorio than opera – particularly the choral sections of Act 1 – but the Philistines’ bacchanale is suitably wild and Dalila’s Act 2 aria “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” is deeply seductive, especially when sung by Elīna Garanča…

But let’s not miss the Bacchanale! 

3Danse macabre 

This famous tone poem, with death scraping out a brooding melody on the violin at midnight, started life as a song composed to a text by Henri Cazalis. Its waltz theme is infectious and Saint-Saëns added xylophones to his orchestration to depict rattling bones (which he would later mimic in the Fossils section of The Carnival of the Animals).

4The Carnival of the Animals

Saint-Saëns’ biggest hit was actually prohibited from being published during his lifetime (except for The Swan) for fear that the frivolity – and parody – of this musical menagerie would overshadow his more serious works. It contains a number of musical jokes, including a slow-motion can-can for tortoises and those temperamental beasts – pianists – messing up their scales. 

5Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor

Saint-Saëns’ most famous concerto opens with a severe solo piano fantasia and ends with a quirky saltarella, prompting Polish pianist and composer Zygmunt Stojowski to quip that the concerto “begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach”. Its middle movement is a complete delight, frothy and light-hearted. 


This vivid Lisztian tone poem tells the story of Phaeton, who has gained the permission of the sun god Helios, his father, to ride his chariot across the heavens. But he is unable to control the fiery steeds and the flaming chariot is thrown wildly off course. When it looks as if the whole world is in danger of being set ablaze, Zeus strikes down the reckless Phaeton with his thunderbolt.

7Introduction and Rondo capriccioso

Dedicated to violin virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso was originally intended to be the finale to Saint-Saëns’ First Violin Concerto before it took on a life of its own. Its beguiling introduction leads to a jaunty rondo theme which is instantly memorable.

8Piano Concerto no. 5 in F major, “Egyptian”

Much of the Fifth Piano Concerto was composed while the composer enjoyed a winter trip to Luxor. The second movement is most evocative – listen out for croaking frogs and chirping crickets – and also features a Nubian love song Saint-Saëns heard as he sailed down the River Nile. The finale seems less inspired by Egypt though, more of a swagger down Parisian boulevards! Do also look out for the concertante fantasy Africa, a serendipitous discovery which I first heard on the BBC World Service while sailing just off the Moroccan coast! 

9Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor

Saint-Saëns' First Cello Concerto is a bit of a Cinderella figure, not as popular as the concertos by Dvořák or Elgar, but a lyrical work of great cohesion, with nods to the classical past – there’s a dainty Minuet – but the first movement opens arrestingly, dispensing with the usual orchestral introduction, the cello plunging us straight into the drama.

10Violin Concerto no. 3 in B minor

Another work dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, the Third is the most popular of Saint-Saëns’ three violin concertos. The second movement is a gentle barcarolle, full of flowing grace, the epitome of French elegance. 

What are your favourite works by Saint-Saëns? Leave a comment to add your suggestions...