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The Intriguing Friendship Around Operas of Prince Albert I and Genius Composer

We have all heard about Prince Albert I, the scientist, recognized world-wide for his explorations and scientific discoveries. Less is known about Prince Albert I and his enthusiastic support for the arts. It has come to light this month (December 16th) with the 100 year anniversary marking the death of the Prince’s friend and genius composer Camille Saint-Saëns

Nothing highlights it more than in this letter that Prince Albert I wrote in 1909, to the great composer: “My dear colleague, you know that the inauguration of the Oceanographic Museum will take place during Easter week in front of an elite audience. As science and art are the two forces which have determined the evolution of mankind, I would like to unite them in this solemnity which will crown my scientific career. This is why I am asking for your assistance with a work that you would compose under this circumstance.”

The result was a beautiful piece called “Festive Opening” that has also been played in the courtyard of the Prince’s Palace.

Science and art are the two forces which have determined the evolution of mankind

And so Prince Albert would continue to demonstrate his enthusiasm and support for the arts including repeatedly putting on Operas in Monte Carlo written by Camille Saint-Saëns. From 1904 onwards Albert 1 played an opera by Saint-Saëns almost every year in Monaco.

Who was this composer whose friendship with Prince Albert had blossomed so? 

He was an unusually gifted child starting playing the piano at the age of 3. By the time he had reached age 6 he had already read the music for Mozart’s opera “Don Juan” while other children his age were reading comics. At the tender age of 10, he played a concerto for piano and orchestra by Mozart and one by Beethoven at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. 

He composed the famous opera “Samson and Delilah” and the yet more famous “Carnival of the Animals” and was elected in 1881 to the Academy of Fine Arts.

Paris Academies of Science and Fine Arts Ignited The Friendship

Camille’s links with Prince Albert I date back to 1891. The Monegasque sovereign had been recognized by the Paris Academy of Sciences for his work on the oceans. Saint-Saëns being a member of the Academy of Fine Arts, they both would get together at the meetings of the Institute de France – which would initiate their writing back and forth to each other “My dear colleague”.

Prince Albert fostered friendships with other composers too including Massenet which did arouse not a little jealousy between them! 

Peach Melba and a Flurry of Operas 

Did you know that “Peach Melba” goes back to this era? 

In 1904, the opera “Hélène” by Saint-Saëns premiered in Monaco. And the star was none other than Nelly Melba to whom the famous “peach” was dedicated. That opera “Hélène” was performed again in 1905, 1908, 1916.

At the request of Albert I, Saint-Saëns created in 1906 another opera, “Ancestor”, a story set in Corsica. The great Felia Litvine was the star. Admirers were known to litter her dressing room with diamonds in appreciation! 

In 1907, followed a playing of the “Silver Stamp”. Then in 1908, Saint-Saëns composed the first film score in the History of Cinema for the “Assassination of the Duke of Guise”. That same year, saw Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII”, performed in Monte Carlo. 

And in 1911, the premiere of the opera “Dejanire” by Saint-Saëns ….Dejanire was the last wife of Hercules, his unwitting killer. No accident this link to Port Hercule. Interestingly, it was played in Monaco around the time of the very first International Women’s Day. 

The opera was so applauded that it was performed again in 1912 just as there were repeated performances of Helene. In 1914, the “Barbares” of Saint-Saëns was played and Etienne Marcel” in 1918.

The prolific composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Prince Albert’s friend died in Algiers, at the age of 86, on December 16, 1921 fondly remembered from 100 years past as is Prince Albert I himself. 

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