Number of compositions: 169
Number of symphonies: 3
Number of concertos: 10
Number of string quartets: 2
Style: Conservative and well-balanced Romantic music. Compared to his contemporaries, Saint-Saëns was a pretty restrained guy. While people like Tchaikovsky and Wagner and Rachmaninoff were stuffing their music to the seams with emotion, Saint-Saens maintained his composure. That means he is frequently regarded as cold and a bit dry.
Well is he? Maybe just a bit. The thing is, I actually kind of like that. All the swoops and strings and emotions of the Romantics (especially the late Romantics) can be a bit overwhelming, and Saint-Saëns has a nice balance of form and feeling.
Whoah, he got old! Yes, Saint-Saëns lived for a long time, especially for a composer (who tend to burn up fast, and expire at a young age). He was born just a few years after Beethoven passed away, and lived all the way through to the introduction of atonality. That’s a hell of a lot of music to experience.
Fossils, from Carnival of the Animals
The Carnival of the Animals is probably the most famous piece by Saint-Saens, although ironically he never really wanted it to be taken seriously; it was supposed to be a fun, kids piece. It’s a bunch of really short movements, most of which have some sort of musical joke in them. For example, in this movement, he quotes a bunch of older works (Au clair de la lune; the Barber of Seville; etc.) – musical fossils.
Symphony No. 3, Finale
It doesn’t come across so well on a YouTube video, but the initial blast of C major on the organ here is designed to knock your socks off. Definitely listen to a proper recording of this if you get the chance, and crank up the volume. You also might recognize the main melody from Babe.
Piano Concerto No. 2, 1st Movement
I have a real soft spot for this piece, as it was the one which got me into classical music. It’s the most famous of his five piano concertos.