Their Majesties

by Camille Saint-Saens

Queen Victoria did me the honor to receive me twice at Windsor Castle, and Queen Alexandra paid me the same honor at Buckingham Palace in London. The first time I saw Queen Victoria I was presented to her by the Baroness de Caters. She was the daughter of Lablache and had one of the most beautiful voices and the greatest talent that I have ever known. This charming woman had been left a widow and so she became an artist, appearing in concerts and giving singing lessons. At the time of which I speak she was teaching Princess Beatrice, now the mother-in-law of the King of Spain. In all the glory of the freshness of youth, the Princess was endowed with a charming voice which the Baroness guided perfectly. The Princess received Madame de Caters and myself with a gracefulness which was increased by her unusual bashfulness. Her Majesty, in the meantime, was finishing her luncheon. I was somewhat apprehensive through having heard of the coldness which the Queen affected at this sort of audience, so I was more than surprised when she came in with both hands extended to take mine and when she addressed me with real cordiality. She was very fond of Baroness de Caters and that was the secret of the reception which put me at my ease at once.

Her Majesty wanted to hear me play the organ (there is an excellent one in the chapel at Windsor), and then the piano. Finally, I had the honor of accompanying the Princess as she sang the aria from Etienne Marcel.  Her Royal Highness sang with great clearness and distinctness, but it was the first time she had sung before her august mother and she was frightened almost to death. The Queen was so delighted that some days later, without my being told of it, she summoned to Windsor, Madame Gye, wife of the manager of Covent Garden,--the famous singer Albani—to ask to have Etienne Marcel staged at her own theatre. The Queen’s wish was not granted.

I returned to Windsor seventeen years later, in company with Johann Wolf, who was for many years Queen Victoria’s chosen violinist. We dined at the palace, and, if we did not enjoy the distinction of sitting at the royal table, we were nevertheless in good company with the young princesses, daughters of the Duke of Connaught. We were lodged at a hotel for the honor of sleeping at the Castle was reserved for very important personages—an honor which need not be envied, for the sleeping apartments are really servants’ rooms. But etiquette decrees it.

Dinner was over, and princes in full uniform and princesses in elaborate evening dress stood about, waiting for her Majesty’s appearance. I was heartbroken when I saw her enter, for she was almost carried by her Indian servant and obviously could not walk alone. But once seated at a small table, she was just as she had been before, with her wonderful charm, her simple manner and her musical voice. Only her white hair bore witness to the years that had passed. She asked me about Henri VIII, which was being given for the second time at Covent Garden, and I explained to her that in my desire to give the piece the local color of its times I had been ferreting about in the royal library at Buckingham Palace, to which my friend, the librarian, had given me access. And I also told how I had found in a great collection of manuscripts of the Sixteenth Century an exquisitely fine theme arranged for the harpsichord, which served as the framework for the opera—I used it later for the march I wrote for the coronation of King Edward. The Queen was much interested in music in general and she appeared to be especially pleased in this discussion. His Highness the Duke of Connaught wrote me that she had spoken of it several times.

The musical library at Buckingham Palace is most remarkable and it is a pity that access to it is not easier. Among other things, there are the manuscripts of Handel’s oratorios, written for the most part with disconcerting rapidity. His Messiah was composed in fifteen days! The rudimentary instrumentation of the time made such speed possible, yet who is there to-day who could write all those fugue choruses with such speed? The fugue manner, which seems laborious to us, was current at the time and they were practiced in it. The library also contains works of Handel’s contemporaries, executed with the same mastery. We cannot say whether they were written with the same rapidity as Handel’s, but it is easy to see that there was a general ability to do so, just as now it is a matter of common attainment to produce complicated orchestral effects, the possibility of which the old masters had no conception. What made Handel superior to his rivals was the romantic and picturesque side of his works; probably also, his prodigious and unvarying fertility.

The last word has been said about Queen Victoria, yet the peculiar charm which radiated from her personality cannot be too highly praised. She seemed the personification of England. When she passed on, it seemed as though a great void were left. All King Edward’s splendid qualities were necessary to take her place, combined with the effect of the world’s surprise at discovering a great king where they had expected to see only a brilliant prince who had been a constant lover of pomp and pleasure.

I was later admitted to Buckingham Palace to play with Josef Hollman, the violinist, before Queen Alexandra. We both were eager for this opportunity which we were told was impossible. The Queen was very busy, and, in addition, she was in mourning for the successive deaths of her father and mother, the King and Queen of Denmark. Suddenly, however, we learned that she would receive us. She was pale and appeared to be feeble, but she received us with the utmost cordiality. She spoke to me about her mother, whom I had seen at Copenhagen with her sisters the Empress Dowager of Russia, and the Princess of Hanover whom politics deprived of a crown which was hers by right. I have a very pleasant recollection of this visit. I do not know how it happened but I remained speechless at this lead from the Queen. She brought the subject up a second time and my timidity still prevented my responding. I ought to have had many things to say to one so obviously eager to listen. This Queen of Denmark, with her eighty years, was the most delightful old lady imaginable. Erect, slight, alert of mind and unfaltering of speech, she reminded me vividly of my maternal great-aunt, that extraordinary woman, who gave me my first notions of things and directed my hand on the keys so well.

A singer whom I had never seen or heard of, but of whom I had heard poor reports, had written Queen Louise that I wanted to accompany her to court. The Queen asked me if I knew her and if what she had written was true. My surprise was so great that I could not repress a start, which I followed by an exclamation of denial, which appeared to amuse her greatly. “I did not doubt it,” she said, “but I’m not sorry to be sure.”

Queen Alexandra was accompanied by Lady Gray, her great friend, and the hereditary princess of Greece. After M. Hollman and I had played a duet, she expressed a desire to hear me play alone. As I attempted to lift the lid of the piano, she stepped forward to help me raise it before the maids of honor could intervene. After this slight concert she delivered to each of us, in her own name and in that of the absent king, a gold medal commemorative of artistic merit, and she offered us a cup of tea which she poured with her royal and imperial hands.

Other queens have also received me—Queen Christine of Spain and Queen Amelie of Portugal. After Queen Christine had heard me play on the piano, she expressed a desire to hear me play the organ, and they chose for this an excellent instrument made by Cavaille-Coll in a church whose name I have forgotten. The day was fixed for this ceremony, which would naturally have been of a private character, when some great ladies lectured the indiscreet queen for daring to resort to a sacred place for any purpose besides taking part in divine services. The queen was displeased by this remonstrance and she responded by coming to the church not only not incognito, but in great state, with the king (he was very young), the ministers and the court, while horsemen stationed at intervals blew their trumpets. I had written a religious march especially for this event, and the Queen kindly accepted its dedication to her. I was a little flustered when she asked me to play the too familiar melody from Samson et Dalila which begins Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix. I had to improvise a transposition suited for the organ, something I had never dreamt of doing. During the performance the Queen leaned her elbow on the keyboard of the organ, her chin resting on one hand and her eyes upturned. She seemed rapt in exstasy which, as may be imagined, was not precisely displeasing to the author.

The press of the day printed delightful articles about the scene, but with no pretense to accuracy. I had nothing to do with that in any way.

Her Majesty Queen Amelie of Portugal once honored me in a distinctive manner. She received me alone without any of her ladies of honor, which allowed her to dispense with all etiquette and to have me sit in a chair near her. In this intimate way she entertained me for three-quarters of an hour asking questions on all sorts of subjects. I had the chance to tell her how the oriental theme of the ballet in Samson had been given to me years before by General Yusuf, and to give her many details of that interesting personage of whom she had heard her uncles speak.

“I am going to leave you,” she said at last, “but not because I want to.  If one conscientiously practices the metier of being a queen, one doesn’t always find it amusing.”

What would that unhappy woman have said, could she have foreseen the calamities that were to befall her!

In Rome I had the honor to be invited to a musicale at Queen Margharita’s. The great drawing-rooms were filled with great ladies laden down with family jewels of fabulous value. All the music was terribly serious. Now this kind of music does not make for personal acquaintance, especially as all these great people were victims of a boredom they did their best to conceal. Afterwards the two queens wanted to talk to me. Queen Helene, who is a violinist, told me that her children were learning the violin and the cello, an arrangement I praised highly, for the exclusive devotion to the piano in these later days has been the death of chamber music and almost of music itself.

In my gallery of sovereigns I cannot forget the gracious Queen of Belgium. I have always seen her, however, in company with her august husband, and this story would become interminable if I were to include “Their Majesties” of the sterner sex—the Emperor of Germany, the Kings of Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Portugal....

As I have had more to do with princes than with sovereigns, my tongue sometimes slips in talking to the latter. As I excused myself one day for addressing the Queen of Belgium as “Highness,” she replied, with a smile, “Don’t apologize; that recalls good times.”

She told me of the time when she and the king, then only heirs apparent, used to go up and down the Mediterranean coast in a little two-seated car. It was during this period that I had the honor of meeting them at the palace of his Serene Highness the Prince of Monaco, and of having charming and interesting personal conversation with them, for the king is a savant and the queen an artist.




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