Monday 13 December 2021

Dancing a pas de deux with Tchaikovsky and holidaying in North Africa: rumours swirled around Saint-Saens even before his death

Camille Saint-Saens
Camille Saint-Saens
Rumours circled around Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) and his private life, even during his lifetime and he would comment, "If it is said that I have a bad character, I assure you that it is all the same to me. Take me as I am." It is not surprising; in July 1878 the composer (aged 43 at the time) and his wife Marie went on holiday to a spa, and on 28 July 1878 Saint-Saens left their hotel room and disappeared. A few days later his wife received a letter from him to say that he would not be returning. They never saw each other again. Marie Saint-Saëns returned to her family, and lived until 1950, dying near Bordeaux at the age of ninety-five, though she would attend Saint-Saens' funeral in 1921.

Saint-Saens had been nearly 40 when he married 19-year-old Marie-Laure Truffot, the sister of one of his pupils. It was not a great success, Saint-Saens' mother (with whom he lived) disapproved and was difficult. Immediately after their wedding, Saint-Saëns declared that he was too busy for a honeymoon and took Marie straight home to live with his mother. Thereafter the composer treated his wife with disdain, until the arrival of children brought out a more sympathetic side. The couple had two sons, both of whom died in infancy, and the double blow effectively destroyed their marriage. After leaving his wife, Saint-Saens would form a bond with his friend and teacher Faure and his wife and children, effectively creating a surrogate family.

But is there more to it. 

Before we get to the various rumours (of which there are many), it is worthwhile discussing the silence. Two of his recent biographers, Stephen Studd (1999) and Kenneth Ring (2002), both conclude that apart from his marriage, Saint-Saëns' relationships were platonic, going on to suggest that his inclinations were such as well. But, the problem with historical figures is the silence does not always provide proof, it constitutes what we are being encouraged to believe. 

As a composer, Saint-Saens was a classicist and his music, throughout his long life, sticks to classical forms thus making him seem somewhat out of date by the early 20th century (when he would describe Debussy's music as formless). There is no reason to believe that in life, he would not want to stick to these forms as well, at least in public. However, if we consider Saint-Saens four symphonic poems, which are considered some of his finest orchestral writing, though the form might be classical, the subject matter is intriguing. Saint-Saens followed the example of Liszt in creating symphonic poems; a relatively new genre that linked a short orchestral work to a narratives. Saint-Saens' four, Le Rouet d'Omphale (1871), Phaëton (1873), Danse Macabre (1874), La jeunesse d'Hercule (1877) each take as their subject matter someone who, in some way, breaks the rules or is separate from society - Hercules dressed as a woman serving Omphale by spinning, Phaeton who is unable to control the chariot of the Sun, Death raising the dead to dance and the child Hercules choosing the path of struggle and combat rather than ease.

The problem when writing about figures like Saint-Saens is that it is possible to use too much imagination and fill the gaps with fantasy. On the other hand,  biographers are frequently over scrupulous and unwilling to fill the gap with anything. But in historical figures' lives, gaps can be very telling; there might be nothing, but equally there might be something people simply did not talk about and gay people throughout the ages have been familiar with this kind of silence. There is such a gap in Schubert's emotional life, which commentators are gradually and reluctantly coming to understand may reflect a bisexual inclination. Similarly, for many years there was a gap in Sir Arthur Sullivan's life, causing at least one biographer to comment on the suggestively homo-social nature of his relationships. Until, that is, the code in his diary was cracked and we discovered that the silence covered his long-term relationship with a married woman.

With Saint-Saens we have a number of rumours. For a start, he was always very private and prone to 'disappearing' for a few weeks. He was also noted for being a lavish host and entertaining in his Paris apartment. I would dearly love to know whether the stories of his performances in drag are true, evidently he appeared as Marguerite from Gounod's Faust. But Modest Mussorgsky records that Saint-Saens danced with Tchaikovsky dressed as a ballerina:

And so on one occasion at the Conservatory [in Moscow], seeking to flaunt their artistry before one another, they performed a whole short ballet on the stage of the Conservatory's auditorium: Galatea and Pygmalion. The 40-year-old Saint-Saëns was Galatea and interpreted, with exceptional conscientiousness, the role of a statue, whilst the 35-year-old Tchaikovsky took on the role of Pygmalion. N. G. Rubinstein stood in for the orchestra. Unfortunately, apart from the three performers no one else was present in the auditorium during this curious production. [from the Tchaikovsky Research website]

Saint-Saens was very fond of holidaying in North Africa, and one of his piano concertos even references this. His Piano Concerto No. 5 is often called The Egyptian; premiered in 1896, it was written whilst the composer was holidaying in Luxor and contains some of the composer's most exotic music. 

The French colony of Algeria was also a popular destination for the composer, and perhaps significantly it was becoming a favourite haunt of a certain sort of discreet man, who benefited from the relative ease with which sex with young men could be procured. Thanks to the Ottoman Empire, the use of boys for sexual purposes had become an acceptable part of society; Europeans would go to coffee houses and pleasure gardens to see dancing boys it would be perfectly acceptable to have a more intimate performance with them if they wished. This stopped in 1830 when Algeria became a French colony, but continued behind closed doors; French authorities knew it went on but turned a blind eye. The novelist Andre Gide would travel to Algiers in the 1890s and it was there he came to accept that he was attracted to young men, and in 1895 Gide met Oscar Wilde there. And Saint-Saens would die in Algiers in December 1921. 

According to Benjamin Ivry in a 2000 biography of Maurice Ravel, Saint-Saëns "was plagued by blackmailing letters from North African men he paid, apparently too little, for sex"; Ivry cites no authority for the statement, alas. Saint Saens is supposed to have said, "Je ne suis pas homosexuel. Je suis pédéraste", this is probably apocryphal and if not then a sardonic comment on the rumours swirling round (though it should be pointed out the in the 19th century pédéraste was often used to refer to homosexual men).

The problem with private men is that we fill the silence with our own imaginings. It would be good to have a reasoned survey any surviving material, but of course letters often sit in private hands and the idea of sullying a composer's reputation with talk of homosexuality is still very much an idea that is with us. And, of course, the opposite may be true and that Saint-Saens did indeed only have platonic relationships.

There is an interesting article by Patricia Juliana Smith, Associate Professor of English at Hofstra University at the GLBT Archive [PDF]

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