Memories of Camille Saint-Saëns in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
24 / 04 / 2024
  • The universally recognised French composer and musician arrived incognito in the city, where he left his mark as an impassioned cultural actor who involved himself in the society of the day

The French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (Paris, 1835 - Algiers, 1921) is an Adoptive Son of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. The city awarded him this distinction in 1900, when, in addition, a room in the Tirso de Molina Theatre was named after him. Today, the same building, known as the Pérez Galdós Theatre since the early 20th century, still has the room that bears his name: this emblematic room is also decorated with frescoes by the modernist Canarian artist Néstor Martín-Fernández de la Torre.

Outside the theatre, the figure of the universally recognised musician stands in a relaxed position, enjoying the classic urban centre of the Gran Canarian capital: he was thus immortalised, in Arucas quarried stone, by the Gran Canarian sculptor Juan Borges Linares in 1987. How strange, the presence of Saint-Saëns, French music’s great innovator, in a setting like the mouth of the Guiniguada Ravine.

There is an explanation. And here it is: a peculiar story which brought the virtuoso pianist, composer and conductor from Paris to the island of Gran Canaria and its capital. A tale which also portrays the cultural scene and society of the day in this city, which has always had the vocation of a direct connection to the cultural forefront of the European continent. Especially in this historic period.

Camille Saint-Saëns did have, in fact, a personal relationship with Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, on an island he came to visit on various occasions, dating between 1889 and 1909. What was this notable Frenchman doing on the island, in an era when the British presence was what predominated? And why would he end up ingratiating himself with the citizens of the Gran Canarian capital and winning their affection?

Historical sources speak of seven documented visits by the composer, in principle, for health reasons; his health was marked by weak lungs. Far from the cold of Paris, he arrived incognito in Gran Canaria. This is why the arrival from France of Charles Sannois, the supposed French commercial representative, music lover and lover of the arts, did not attract attention. Still less, since he took refuge in Villa Melpómene, in the town of Santa María de Guía, in the house of his friend the French consul, Jean Ladevèze y Redonet.

But the intellectual passions of the restless bourgeois Parisian led him to frequent the cultural meeting places in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. His own personality meant he let himself be seen, and participated loquaciously, in the soirées hosted regularly at the Las Palmas Gabinete Literario or Literary Club. Others attending the soirées were very soon dazzled by his broad musical knowledge and his capacities.

The man known as Sannois was daring enough to attend the rehearsals for the opera season in the Tirso de Molina Theatre. As a natural musician, he even argued with Maestro Bernardino Valle about how he was conducting the orchestra on a famous occasion when the Frenchman ended up leaving the building in frustration. Brimful with talent, the composer did not seem particularly skilful when it came to keeping the secret of his identity.

Above all, when his absence from the Parisian cultural meeting places had evinced all sorts of speculations and worries about his whereabouts, or even his state of health. The impact of his disappearance was such that photographs of his face, published by the French newspapers of the day, ended up reaching the local Gran Canarian press. And so it was that, finally, in the old Cairasco Theatre, which was also the Gabinete Literario’s base, he was recognised as being Camille Saint-Saëns himself.

From that moment on, the affection of the citizens for him, both as a person and for what he represented, grew and grew in the Gran Canarian capital. And also because of the commitment the French musician showed to the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Society (the first society of its type in Spain, founded in 1845, alongside the Gran Canaria Philharmonic Orchestra). Eventually he was designated a Meritorious Member and Honorary President of the orchestra, which he conducted on several occasions. Often, free of charge.

Saint-Saëns also penned two compositions dedicated to Gran Canaria, the Valse Cariote pour le piano, Op. 88 and Campanas de Las Palmas, premièred in the Gran Canarian capital. Even today, his figure and his time in the city continue to be the cause of tributes, celebrations and memorials. To which a contribution is also made by a street in the English neighbourhood of Ciudad Jardín, which, along with another street in the town of Santa María de Guía, also carries his name. Mark you, though, his “Canarian” name: Camilo Saint Saenz.


Salón Camille Saint Saenz en el Teatro Perez Galdos