Memories of My Childhood

By Camille Saint-Saens

In bygone days I was often told that I had two mothers, and, as a matter of fact, I did have two—the mother who gave me life and my maternal great-aunt, Charlotte Masson. The latter came from an old family of lawyers named Gayard and this relationship makes me a descendant of General Delcambre, one of the heroes of the retreat from Russia. His granddaughter married Count Durrieu of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. My great-aunt was born in the provinces in 1781, but she was adopted by a childless aunt and uncle who made their home in Paris. He was a wealthy lawyer and they lived magnificently.

My great-aunt was a precocious child—she walked at nine months—and she became a woman of keen intellect and brilliant attainments. She remembered perfectly the customs of the Ancien Regime, and she enjoyed telling about them, as well as about the Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the times that followed. Her family was ruined by the Revolution and the slight, frail, young girl undertook to earn her living by giving lessons in French, on the pianoforte—the instrument was a novelty then—in singing, painting, embroidery, in fact in everything she knew and in much that she did not. If she did not know, she learned then and there so that she could teach. Afterwards, she married one of her cousins. As she had no children of her own, she brought one of her nieces from Champagne and adopted her. This niece was my mother, Clemence Collin. The Massons were about to retire from business with a comfortable fortune, when they lost practically everything within two weeks, in a panic, saving just enough to live decently. Shortly after this my mother married my father, a minor official in the Department of the Interior. My great-uncle died of a broken heart some months before my birth on October 9, 1835. My father died of consumption on the thirty-first of the following December, just a year to a day after his marriage.

Thus the two women were both left widows, poorly provided for, weighed down by sad memories, and with the care of a delicate child. In fact I was so delicate that the doctors held out little hope of my living, and on their advice I was left in the country with my nurse until I was two years old.

While my aunt had had a remarkable education, my mother had not been so widely taught. But she made up for any lack by the display of an imagination and an eager power of assimilation which bordered on the miraculous. She often told me about an uncle who was very fond of her—he had been ruined in the cause of Philippe Egalite. This uncle was an artist, but he was, nevertheless, passionately fond of music. He had even built with his own hands a concert organ on which he used to play.  My mother used to sit between his knees and, while he amused himself by running his fingers through her splendid black hair, he would talk to her about art, music, painting—beauty in every form. So she got it into her head that if she ever had sons of her own, the first should be a musician, the second a painter, and the third a sculptor. As a result, when I came home from the nurse, she was not greatly surprised that I began to listen to every noise and to every sound; that I made the doors creak, and would plant myself in front of the clocks to hear them strike. My special delight was the music of the tea-kettle—a large one which was hung before the fire in the drawing-room every morning. Seated nearby on a small stool, I used to wait with a lively curiosity for the first murmurs of its gentle and variegated crescendo, and the appearance of a microscopic oboe which gradually increased its song until it was silenced by the kettle boiling. Berlioz must have heard that oboe as well as I, for I rediscovered it in the “Ride to Hell” in his La Damnation de Faust.

At the same time I was learning to read. When I was two-years-and-a-half old, they placed me in front of a small piano which had not been opened for several years. Instead of drumming at random as most children of that age would have done, I struck the notes one after another, going on only when the sound of the previous note had died away. My great-aunt taught me the names of the notes and got a tuner to put the piano in order. While the tuning was going on, I was playing in the next room, and they were utterly astonished when I named the notes as they were sounded. I was not told all these details—I remember them perfectly.

I was taught by Le Carpentier’s method and I finished it in a month.  They couldn’t let a little monkey like that work away at the piano, and I cried like a lost soul when they closed the instrument. Then they left it open and put a small stool in front of it. From time to time I would leave my playthings and climb up to drum out whatever came into my head.  Gradually, my great-aunt, who fortunately had an excellent foundation in music, taught me how to hold my hands properly so that I did not acquire the gross faults which are so difficult to correct later on. But they did not know what sort of music to give me. That written especially for children is, as a rule, entirely melody and the part for the left hand is uninteresting. I refused to learn it. “The bass doesn’t sing,” I said, in disgust.

Then they searched the old masters, in Haydn and Mozart, for things sufficiently easy for me to handle. At five I was playing small sonatas correctly, with good interpretation and excellent precision. But I consented to play them only before listeners capable of appreciating them. I have read in a biographical sketch that I was threatened with whippings to make me play. That is absolutely false; but it was necessary to tell me that there was a lady in the audience who was an excellent musician and had fastidious tastes. I would not play for those who did not know.

As for the threat of whippings, that must be relegated to the realm of legends with the one that Garcia punished his daughters to make them learn to sing. Madame Viardot expressly told me that neither she nor her sister was abused by their father and that they learned music without realizing it, just as they learned to talk.

But in spite of my surprising progress my teacher did not foresee what my future was to be. “When he is fifteen,” she said, “if he can write a dance, I shall be satisfied.” It was just at this time, however, that I began to write music. I wrote waltzes and galops—the galop was fashionable at that period; it ran to rather ordinary musical motives and mine were no exception to the rule. Liszt had to show by his Galop Chromatique the distinction that genius can give to the most commonplace themes. My waltzes were better. As has always been the case with me, I was already composing the music directly on paper without working it out on the piano. The waltzes were too difficult for my hands, so a friend of the family, a sister of the singer Geraldy, was kind enough to play them for me.

I have looked over these little compositions lately. They are insignificant, but it is impossible to find a technical error in them.  Such precision was remarkable for a child who had no idea of the science of harmony. About that time some one had the notion that I should hear an orchestra. So they took me to a symphony concert and my mother held me in her arms near the door. Until then I had only heard single violins and their tone had not pleased me. But the impression of the orchestra was entirely different and I listened with delight to a passage played by a quartet, when, suddenly, came a blast from the brass instruments—the trumpets, trombones and cymbals. I broke into loud cries, “Make them stop. They prevent my hearing the music.” They had to take me out.

When I was seven, I passed out of my great-aunt’s hands into Stamaty’s.  He was surprised at the way my education in music had been directed and he expressed this in a small work in which he discussed the necessity of making a correct start. In my case, he said, there was nothing to do but to perfect.

Stamaty was Kalkbrenner’s best pupil and the propagator of the method he had invented. This method was based on the guide main, so I was put to work on it. The preface to Kalkbrenner’s method, in which he relates the beginnings of his invention, is exceedingly interesting. This invention consisted of a rod placed in front of the keyboard. The forearm rested on this rod in such a way that all muscular action save that of the hand was suppressed. This system is excellent for teaching the young pianist how to play pieces written for the harpsichord or the first pianofortes where the keys responded to slight pressure; but it is inadequate for modern works and instruments. It is the way one ought to begin, for it develops firmness of the fingers and suppleness of the wrist, and, by easy stages, adds the weight of the forearm and of the whole arm. But in our day it has become the practice to begin at the end. We learn the elements of the fugue from Sebastian Bach’s Wohltemperirte Klavier, the piano from the works of Schumann and Liszt, and harmony and instrumentation from Richard Wagner. All too often we waste our efforts, just as singers who learn roles and rush on the stage before they know how to sing ruin their voices in a short time.

Firmness of the fingers is not the only thing that one learns from Kalkbrenner’s method, for there is also a refinement of the quality of the sound made by the fingers alone, a valuable resource which is unusual in our day.

Unfortunately, this school invented as well continuous legato, which is both false and monotonous; the abuse of nuances, and a mania for continual expressio used with no discrimination. All this was opposed to my natural feelings, and I was unable to conform to it. They reproached me by saying that I would never get a really fine effect—to which I was entirely indifferent.

When I was ten, my teacher decided that I was sufficiently prepared to give a concert in the Salle Pleyel, so I played there, accompanied by an Italian orchestra, with Tilmant as the conductor. I gave Beethoven’s Concerto in C minor and one of Mozart’s concertos in B flat. There was some question of my playing at the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire, and there was even a rehearsal. But Seghers, who afterwards founded the Societe St. Cecile, was a power in the affairs of the orchestra. He detested Stamaty and told him that the Societe was not organized to play children’s accompaniments. My mother felt hurt and wanted to hear nothing more of it.

After my first concert, which was a brilliant success, my teacher wanted me to give others, but my mother did not wish me to have a career as an infant prodigy. She had higher ambitions and was unwilling for me to continue in concert work for fear of injuring my health. The result was that a coolness sprang up between my teacher and me which ended our relations.

At that time my mother made a remark which was worthy of Cornelia. One day some one remonstrated with her for letting me play Beethoven’s sonatas. “What music will he play when he is twenty?” she was asked. “He will play his own,” was her reply.


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The greatest benefit I got from my experience with Stamaty was my acquaintance with Maleden, the latter becoming my teacher in composition.  Maleden was born in Limoges, as his accent always showed. He was thin and long-haired, a kind and timid soul, but an incomparable teacher. He had gone to Germany in his youth to study with a certain Gottfried Weber, the inventor of a system which Maleden brought back with him and perfected. He made it a wonderful tool with which to get to the depths of music—a light for the darkest corners. In this system the chords are not considered in and for themselves—as fifths, sixths, sevenths—but in relation to the pitch of the scale on which they appear. The chords acquire different characteristics according to the place they occupy, and, as a result, certain things are explained which are, otherwise, inexplicable. This method is taught in the Ecole Niedermeuer, but I don’t know that it is taught elsewhere.

Maleden was extremely anxious to become a professor at the Conservatoire. As the result of powerful influence, Auber was about to sign Maleden’s appointment, when, in his scrupulous honesty, he thought he ought to write and warn him that his method differed entirely from that taught in the institution. Auber was frightened and Maleden was not admitted.

Our lessons were often very stormy. From time to time certain questions came up on which I could not agree with him. He would then take me quietly by the ear, bend my head and hold my ear to the table for a minute or two. Then, he would ask whether I had changed my mind. As I had not, he would think it over and very often he would confess that I was right.

“Your childhood,” Gounod once told me, “wasn’t musical.” He was wrong, for he did not know the many tokens of my childhood. Many of my attempts are unfinished—to say nothing of those I destroyed—but among them are songs, choruses, cantatas, and overtures, none of which will ever see the light. Oblivion will enshroud these gropings after effect, for they are of no interest to the public. Among these scribblings I have found some notes written in pencil when I was four. The date on them leaves no doubt about the time of their production.



Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music