Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type

Open Access Thesis


School of Music

First Advisor

Kunio Hara


The music of Camille Saint-Saëns hints at modernism. Musicologists have largely avoided describing Saint-Saëns as a neoclassical or modernist composer, since much of his musical output occurred during the Romantic era. However, Saint-Saëns appears to have already been engaging with the nationalist and revivalist concerns which drove later twentieth-century French composers toward neoclassicism and other forms of musical modernism. Revivals of la musique ancienne (‘ancient’ music) and la musique française (“French” music) were well underway when Saint-Saëns began composing, and they continued throughout his career. Scholars have largely pursued these two revivals separately, with early music revival in France following the French Revolution (1789) and a distinctly French style of music being reimagined after the Franco-Prussian War (1870). However, these two revivals are correlated. This thesis therefore advocates for considering Saint-Saëns as an early neoclassical composer, opening the door to wider debates regarding his modernism, and understanding his engagement with the Early Musical Renaissance in France to be both political and complex. At the heart of this thesis rests the composer’s decision to insert sixteenth-century French music into historical grand opera. Ascanio, a mature work, presents unfamiliar yet authentic French music in the ballet, a section traditionally reserved for excess, pastiche, and exoticism. If this borrowing is only viewed in the context of la musique ancienne, it reiterates current historicizing narratives of decline in grand opera. Alternately, viewed only in the context of la musique française, Saint-Saëns’ choice to use French music written by Palestrina’s contemporaries, Claudin Gervaise and Estienne du Tertre, points to the kind of mythologizing nationalism which only appeared later in French musical history. Thinking in terms of both histories and understanding their overlapping influence, we can see Saint-Saëns negotiating nationalism within these dual revivals, even as hints of his modernism are derided by his contemporaries and the press as conservative, classical, German, or even Wagnerian, during the early years of the Third Republic.


© 2022, Joshua Arin Harton

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