Having made my notes and outlined my scenario, all I had to do was set to work. At the time, I was in Cairo, the guest of His Highness Mohammed Ali, Pasha of Egypt, the Khedive’s brother. I was in the enjoyment of complete liberty and of a calm undisturbed by visitors. These had probably been scared away by the guard of the palace gate, huge fellows in gorgeous costumes and formidably armed.
I cannot possibly say how I found the first musical phrase to which I subsequently adapted the line:
Des astres de la nuit tes yeux ont la clarté!
I had reached this point when the director of the Khedive’s theatre conceived the idea of giving a grand concert on behalf of the sailors of Brittany and of composing it entirely from my works.
Suddenly I found myself plunged into a round of rehearsals, compelled to take my own part in this solemnity. All this was incompatible with work that was in its initial critical stage. Regretfully I gave up “Hélène,” and when, later on, I wished to take it up again, it was quite impossible. I was bewildered, out of tune so to speak. I had to quit my delightful abode in Cairo and proceed to the middle of the desert into the Thiebaid of Ismailia—a refuge of light and silence—for what one is pleased to call “inspiration.”
Ismailia, the favorite sojourn of the Prince of Arenberg, is a heavenly spot. It is a beata solitudo inhabited by a number of highly civilised people of both sexes employed by the Suez Canal administration, a small though choice colony which included poets of no mean talent! And as these kindly folk are very busy, they people the solitude without disturbing it.
In twelve days I had written my poem. Then I set sail at Port Said for Paris, where preparations were in progress for a revival of “Henry VIII” at the Opéra. Once this was over, I was quite tired out; my “composing machine” would not work any longer and I needed a week at Biarritz and another at Cannes to recover. Then I remembered that Aix-en-Savoie was close to a flower-decked mountain, surrounded by a wonderful panorama and easy of access. Soon I found myself installed on Mount Revard where I sketched out almost the whole of the music of “Hélène” to be completed subsequently in Paris.
It is thus that one should always work, in calm and silence, far from importunate visitors and distractions of various kinds, soothed by the glorious sights of nature and the odours of flowers.
—Camille Saint-Saëns, Outspoken Essays on Music
(trans. Fred Rothwell)
Nice work if you can get it.