Saint-Saëns and the presidential bathtub

I would hazard a guess that not many of us give a lot of thought to our respective legacies. There’s just too much other stuff to worry about on any given day. My sphere of influence is comparatively small on this side of the ground, so it’s hard to imagine that the many future generations will take much notice once I’m gone. I suppose if I someday found myself (just as a random example) President of the United States, I might give it a little more serious consideration. But as we all know, talking about religion or politics in public is best left for the experts, so I’ll refrain from commenting on anything too current.


Instead, let’s look to safer examples from the past. Consider the legacy of the twenty-seventh President of the United States, Mr. William Howard Taft. Elected in 1908, Taft was the successor of the great Theodore Roosevelt. He also served as Chief Justice of the United States and was the only person to have held both offices. Impressive credentials, without a doubt. Unfortunately, it has been decided that President Taft’s legacy will be that he was the only President to get stuck in the White House bathtub. Taft was an extraordinarily large man (355 lbs), and legend has it that after his disastrous bathing experience, he ordered the installation of an extra large tub big enough to hold four people. History can cruel.


Try as we might, it seems that posterity will decide for us what our legacy will be. Take the fortunately far less ridiculous example of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. In 19th-century Paris, Saint-Saëns was a musical rockstar. He was in demand as a pianist and composer throughout Europe and America, and held a highly coveted position as a teacher at the École de Musique Classique et Religieuse. His students included luminaries like Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel. He wrote a dozen operas, three symphonies and several brilliant concertos for piano and for cello. By all accounts, Saint-Saëns was a serious contender.


But in the winter of 1886, as a diversion from a particularly disastrous concert tour, Saint-Saëns decided to have a little fun. He wrote a little set of pieces called The Carnival of the Animals. In his mind, these fourteen miniatures were nothing more than musical fluff. In fact, he was adamant that The Carnival of the Animals never be published while he was alive, as he was concerned they would detract from his reputation as a serious composer. Posterity had different plans.


The Carnival of the Animals has become undeniably Saint-Saëns’s most popular work. Every one of the fourteen movements is a masterfully evocative depiction of its respective subjects, whether it be the lumbering elephants, the droopy tortoises, the majestic swan or the mysterious submarine inhabitants of his musical aquarium.


I like to think there are lessons to be found in pretty much any chapter of the past. Maybe in this case, it’s that history is watching us. Even in our bathtubs.