During his lifetime, Saint-Saëns achieved a rare type of fame: renowned to the general musical public, and respected by his friends and colleagues. Gounod called him “the French Beethoven.” Liszt noted his outstanding talent as an organist. Making his public debut as a pianist at age ten, Saint-Saëns quickly moved beyond being simply a child prodigy to embrace his academic studies as well as educate himself thoroughly in the history of music. Thanks to his tireless work proselytizing to audiences and students about the virtues of Wagner, Schumann, Liszt, Mozart, Handel, and Bach, he educated and enlightened a whole generation of French men and women—including his most famous student, Gabriel Fauré.
His interest in a wide range of music is evident in the composition of his Tarantella. A type of Italian folk music, the tarantella is a dance shrouded in some confusing mysteries regarding its origins and thus has led to a duel definition of its purpose. It is alternately described as a flirtatious dance between a man and a woman, or a dance meant for victims of a venomous spider bite in which rapid and somewhat violent gestures keep the poison from settling and expel it from the body through the dancer’s sweat. Whilst it might seem at first glance to be an unusual choice to form the basis of a rather tame sounding work (considering the urgency of venom) for flute, clarinet (traditional instruments for a tarantella) and piano (versions for orchestra accompaniment in place of piano or for two pianos also exist), it is perfectly logical in light of simply being folk music. From this perspective, it is akin to writing an arrangement of a mazurka or a landler. Additionally, it was a popular folk dance to set in as art music; Liszt, Chopin, and Mendelssohn all also wrote versions of tarantellas.
The story goes that Rossini hosted the premiere of the work building in a bit of a practical joke on Saint-Saëns: “[The guests] were allowed to believe it was the work of their illustrious host. When it was over, Rossini received the customary extravagant praises, and only then pointed his mortified admirers to the real author, holding him firmly by the hand so he could not escape.”
(From the program notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot)