SAINT-SAËNS:  Introduction and Rondo capriccioso, Opus 28

Charles Camille Saint‑Saëns was born in Paris on October 9, 1835, and died in Algiers on December 16, 1921. He composed the Introduction and Rondo capriccioso in 1863. Pablo de Sarasate, for whom the work was written, was the first to perform it, in 1870. Alfred de Sève was the first to play it in this country, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Henschel, on December 14, 1883. Louis Persinger was soloist in the first San Francisco Symphony performance, in January 1919, with Alfred Hertz conducting. Most recently, in October 2008, Joshua Bell was soloist and Fabio Luisi conducted. The orchestra consists of two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Duration: about ten minutes.

The dates amaze. Saint‑Saëns was born the year of Lucia di Lammermoor, I Puritani, and Schumann’s Carnaval. When he died, Alban Berg was about halfway through the orchestration of Wozzeck. The Pickwick Papers and “The Waste Land” were both written in his lifetime. He was born during the reign of Louis‑Philippe and just six years after George Stephenson’s Rocket had frightened the horses by steaming along the rails at sixteen miles per hour. When he died, France was a republic, it was curtains for the Russian, Austro‑Hungarian, and German empires, and Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant A.W. Brown of the Royal Flying Corps had flown from Newfoundland to Ireland in sixteen hours.

Across his life there lay the shadow of his wife’s and children’s early deaths; otherwise, Camille Saint‑Saëns seemed to make his way imperturbably through all those years, deploring excess in politics and art, but not deeply affected by the changing world. He composed, wrote books and articles, taught, conducted, played the piano and organ, prepared virtuoso transcriptions and scholarly editions, traveled with zest, and accepted applause and honors. We would have a hard time working out a chronology for his music based on stylistic evidence alone. We are apt to be a little down on him for the combination of fluency and detachment that informs his work. He resembles Mendelssohn in being awesomely elegant in command of craft, immensely likable when he aims to please, and sometimes troubling when he tries for more. He composed abundantly—the opus numbers go past 160—and his ample catalogue includes works that in one way or another are of true importance to us: his serious and seductive opera Samson et Dalila, the fiery, superb Organ Symphony, the sheerly charming Carnival of the Animals or the G minor Piano Concerto. Cellists find his A minor Concerto indispensable, as do violinists his Concerto No. 3 in B minor and this Introduction and Rondo capriccioso.

The Introduction and Rondo capriccioso was conceived as an independent piece, and it has been consistently popular. The great violinist Pablo de Sarasate (1844–1908) discovered how well the Saint‑Saëns Violin Concerto No. 1 and this work go together, the latter virtually functioning as the finale of the former. But whether heard alone or in the wake of the concerto, it is a delicious occasion for nonchalant virtuosity and charm.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.