The two composers would be major forces in late nineteenth-century music and great friends, but not before some preliminary missteps.
In 1857 Camille Saint-Saens began seeing small notices announcing Paris performances by an unknown Russian named Anton Rubinstein. Rubinstein was unknown in Paris for a very good reason – he avoided press coverage. His Paris debut took place in an elegant hall – without a single paying listener in attendance.
With power and artistry, Rubinstein wowed his first audience, and for his next performance the hall was, as Saint-Saens put it, “crammed to suffocation”. In his memoirs, Saint-Saens gushed, “I was bowled over, chained to the chariot of the conqueror!”
Despite his admiration, Saint-Saens avoided meeting the great pianist. The twenty-two-year-old was terrified at the prospect, despite Rubinstein’s reputation for kindness and gentility. For a year, mutual friends continued to invite Saint-Saens to meet Rubinstein, but Saint-Saens turned them down. The following year, though, during Rubinstein’s next visit to Paris, Saint-Saens finally got up his courage for an introduction and the two hit it off at once.
They got together often to play flamboyant piano duets. Saint-Saens was taken not only with Rubinstein’s artistry, but also with his lack of jealousy when it came to his fellow musicians. Rubinstein planned to solo in performances of some of his works for piano and orchestra and invited Saint-Saens to conduct. Again reluctant, Saint-Saens eventually agreed, and found the experience to be his primary education as a conductor.
It was a baptism by fire because Rubinstein paid no attention to the orchestra and sometimes drowned them out, forcing Saint-Saens to follow him by watching his hands. And Rubinstein provided scores that were marked up beyond comprehension because he found it amusing to see Saint-Saens conduct his way into and out of trouble.
During later Paris visits, the bold, broad-shouldered Anton Rubinstein and the shy, delicate Camille Saint-Saens became almost inseperable friends.
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Richard Strauss admired the music of Richard Wagner, and so he felt honored in 1839 when he received an invitation from Wagner’s widow Cosima to conduct during the consummate Wagnerian event, the Bayreuth Festival.
But the honor would come with strings attached.
Part of Cosima’s motive for the invitation came from the formation of a rival festival in nearby Munich. The director of the Munich festival put it into direct competition with Bayreuth by announcing a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the same opera Bayreuth had presented on its season’s opening night.
The Munich director also invited Strauss to conduct two of their operas.
His willingness to work with the competition put Strauss at odds with Cosima’s increasingly resentful son Siegfried, a composer who also did some conducting. Strauss was not reluctant to voice his criticisms of Cosima and her family. He and Siegfried had a quarrel about artistic control that prompted Strauss to break off his associations with the Wagners. Cosima asked that Strauss not return to Bayreuth as a conductor.
In August 1896 he did return – as an audience member – to hear Siegfriend conduct Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the first time, and he found the Wagners amiable, although he thought that Siegfried’s conducting was awful.
Siegfried rekindled the animosity by publishing a letter in which he stated that the ultimate authority in the theater at Bayreuth was the stage director, who got to give orders to the director. Strauss took the letter as a personal insult.
But despite his break with the Wagners and his condemnation of Bayreuth as “the ultimate pigsty”, Strauss remained steadfast in his admiration of Wagner’s music and saw the festival as its greatest safeguard, in fact, the consummate safeguard of all German art. And in 1933, after the deaths of Siegfried and Cosima, when the invitation came to conduct again at Bayreuth, neither the needs of his own music nor the grim Nazi politics of the times kept him from accepting it.