Program Notes

Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Opus 33

BORN: October 9, 1835. Paris, France
DIED: December 16, 1921. Algiers, Algeria

COMPOSED: November 1872

WORLD PREMIERE: January 19, 1873. Auguste Tolbecque (its dedicatee) was soloist and Édouard Deldevez conducted, at the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1917. Horace Britt was soloist, Alfred Hertz led. MOST RECENT—September 2017. Yo-Yo Ma was soloist, Michael Tilson Thomas led

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; timpani; strings

DURATION: About 20 mins

THE BACKSTORY  “Monsieur Saint-Saëns possesses one of the most astonishing musical organizations I know of,” wrote his fellow French composer Charles Gounod. “He is a musician armed with every weapon. He is a master of his craft as no one else is. . . . He plays, and plays with the orchestra as he does the piano. One can say no more.” In marveling over Saint-Saëns’s talents, Gounod might have noted that his fellow Parisian was also a highly accomplished organist (who for two decades reigned in the loft at the Madeleine), a champion of forgotten early music and of contemporary composers, an inspiring teacher (who, as a professor at the École Niedermeier in Paris, did much to shape the talents of Gabriel Fauré and André Messager), a gifted writer, a world traveler, and an informed aficionado of such disciplines as Classical languages, astronomy, archaeology, philosophy, and even the occult sciences.

He started piano lessons at the age of two-and-a-half, soon began studying piano with a former pupil of Kalkbrenner’s and Mendelssohn’s, and embarked on composition and organ instruction at seven, by which time he was already performing Bach, Handel, and Mozart in public. In 1846, when he was ten, he presented his formal debut recital at Paris’s Salle Pleyel, a program that included piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven—with a cadenza he had written for the Mozart—plus solo pieces by Bach and Handel. “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience,” lamented his friend Hector Berlioz, wryly.

He would live a good, long life, remaining very active until his moment of departure at the age of eighty-six. It is astonishing to think that he was born when Beethoven was still being mourned and died when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was already being assimilated into the repertory and the Groupe des Six was playing naughty tricks on the Parisian musical establishment. Fortunately for Saint-Saëns, he remained generally respected by musicians to the end. Some viewed him as a curious relic of antiquity, to be sure, but those with open ears could hardly overlook that his style continued to develop practically until the day he died, while on vacation in Algiers, in the midst of a series of woodwind sonatas that are marked by neoclassical transparency.

By the time he composed his Cello Concerto No. 1, in November 1872 at the age of thirty-seven, Saint-Saëns was highly regarded in French musical circles but had not yet written the works for which he is most famous today. He had gotten his first opera production that June (La Princesse jaune, unveiled to little acclaim) and had set aside another opera that seemed to be leading nowhere—Samson et Dalila, which he would pick up again with refreshed insights in 1873. His first two symphonies and his unnumbered symphony Urbs Roma were behind him—all are broadly ignored today—and his famous Third Symphony lay far in the future. Of his symphonic poems, he had achieved only Le rouet d’Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel); his Danse Macabre would emerge in 1874. He was a bit farther along in the genre of the concerto, having completed the first three of his five piano concertos and two of his three violin concertos, as well as the popular Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso for Violin and Orchestra. In 1871, he had co-founded, with his colleague Romain Bussine, the Société Nationale de Musique, established to counter the French predilection for vocal over instrumental music and to promote music by French composers in their own land, which at the time was more respectful of Germanic scores.

Immediately following the Cello Concerto’s premiere, the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris reported:

If Mr. Saint-Saëns should decide to continue in this vein, which is consistent with his violin concerto, the Trio in F, and other works of lesser significance, he is certain to recover many of the votes that he lost with his all-too-obvious divergence from classicism and the tendencies in a number of his recent works. . . . We must say that the Cello Concerto seems to us to be a beautiful and good work of excellent sentiment and perfect cohesiveness, and as usual the form is of greatest interest.

It should be clarified that this is in reality a Concertstück, since the three relatively short movements run together. The orchestra plays such a major role that it gives the work symphonic character, a tendency present in every concerto of any significance since Beethoven.

The review goes on to describe some of the piece’s details, but already those opening observations make some salient points. The anonymous writer applauds what he considers a retreat from “the tendencies in a number of his recent works”—by which he means modernistic inclinations. This it generally does, and its overall conservative, classical stance doubtless accounts for the widespread popularity it enjoyed from the outset, celebrity that to this day far surpasses that of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 2, which would follow in 1902. The critic was quite right to stress that the orchestra plays a role beyond that of mere accompaniment. It is a testament to the composer’s skill that this work never succumbs to the imbalance frequently encountered in cello concertos whereby for long stretches the soloist is seen bowing furiously but is scarcely heard.

That the Revue et gazette musicale critic described the piece as a Concertstück is doubly significant. He clearly used that term to distinguish it from a “proper” concerto in which the movements stand as separate entities—a seriously old-fashioned stance in the 1870s, since connected movements had been common for decades, including in some famous concertos by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, among others. In any case, the three connected movements of Saint-Saëns’s concerto do hew to modest proportions. Perhaps more significant is that the critic chose to classify the piece using German terminology, which underscores why the creation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its motto “Ars gallica” (French Art), was of such pressing concern.

THE MUSIC  Rather than wait out an orchestral introduction, the soloist leaps into the fray from the beginning, spinning out rapid triplets. The work is rich in melodies that show off both the dramatic and the lyrical aspects of the cello. The second movement is a latter-day minuet. The Saint-Saëns biographer Stephen Studd suggests that the composer’s sudden interest in the cello—this concerto was immediately preceded by a sonata for the instrument—resulted from his mourning a recently departed great-aunt. “His feeling for the cello,” writes Studd, “with its deep, dark tone and capacity for both dignified and impassioned utterance, was now rekindled by the melancholy that set in after his bereavement.” If that is the case, this minuet section might underscore his great-aunt’s connection to the music of an earlier time. A cadenza is interpolated near the end of the second movement, and then the finale proceeds with reminiscences of material from the beginning, along with entirely new material that keeps this concerto surprising through to its final measures.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and of the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is now also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Gautier Capuçon with Lionel Bringuier conducting the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (Erato)  |  Pierre Fournier with Jean Martinon and the Lamoureux Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon Originals)  |  Yo-Yo Ma with Lorin Maazel and the ORTF Chamber Orchestra (CBS Masterworks)

ReadingSaint-Saëns and his Circle, by James Harding (Humanities)  |  Saint-Saëns, by Stephen Studd (Farleigh Dickinson)

(May 2018)

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