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Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, Op. 61

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
© Richard Freed
Saint-Saëns composed the last of his three violin concertos in 1880 for the Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate, who introduced the work in a concert at the Châtelet, Paris, on January 2 of the following year. Sylvia Lent was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of the Concerto, with Hans Kindler conducting, on January 29, 1933; in the most recent ones, on January 15, 16 and 17, 2004, the soloist was the orchestra's concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef and the conductor was Leonard Slatkin.

In addition to the solo violin, the score, dedicated to Sarasate,calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs, with three trombones and strings. Duration, 30 minutes.
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Saint-Saëns was productively interested in numerous forms of creativity and mental exercise in addition to music throughout his long life. While his musical tastes remained fairly conservative, he was alert enough to the possibilities of new technology to be credited with composing the earliest known filmscore. He was a brilliant pianist, admired for his performances of Mozart and Beethoven, and he followed their examples in composing all five of his piano concertos for his own use. He was also happy to provide concert showpieces for other instruments: he composed two concertos and some other concerted works for the cello, and no fewer than eight works for violin and orchestra. Several of those eight works, among them the first and last of his three concertos, bear dedications to Sarasate.

There were other great violinists in Sarasate's time--the Pole Henryk Wieniawski, for one, and the Belgian Eugène Ysaÿe, and the enormously respected Hungarian Joseph Joachim, to name an outstanding few--and each earned admiration with a style of his own and a repertory tailored to that style. They were all "virtuoso-composers," who provided pieces designed basically as personal showpieces. Joachim, who was also a conductor and a distinguished pedagogue, went farther afield than his fellow violinists in his own creative efforts, but Sarasate was content to concentrate on enriching the violin repertory, and did so mainly by exploiting the infectious charm of his national idiom. Composers loved to write for him: Edouard Lalo's most enduring concert work is the Symphonie espagnole he composed for Sarasate. Sarasate was especially fond, however, of this Concerto in B minor by Saint-Saëns, which in both form and content appears as a striking parallel to the famous Concerto in E minor composed by Mendelssohn in the year of the Spanish violinist's birth. A brief but more or less definitive analysis of the work appeared in a biographical study of Saint-Saëns by Otto Nietzel, published in Berlin in 1899 (when Saint-Saëns, a mere 64, had 22 years more to live and dozens of compositions still ahead of him):
The first and third movements are characterized by somber determination, which in the finale, introduced by an instrumental recitative, appears with intensified passion. The middle movement is in strong contrast, and over it the spring sun smiles. There is toward the end a striking effect produced by lower clarinet tones and the solo violin with octave harmonics. A hymn serves an an appeasing episode in the stormy passion of the inale; it reappears in the brass; warring strings try to drive it away; it is a thoughtfully conceived and individual passage, both in rhythm and in timbre.
One of Saint-Saëns's contemporaries once referred to him as "the only great composer who was not a genius." Both genius and greatness are qualities hard to measure or define. For his own part, Saint-Saëns, who was active as a poet, mathematician, astronomer and archaeologist as well as a musician, was not concerned about the term or its application, and did not seek to mystify or glorify his creative process, which he summed up in the frequently quoted statement,
As an apple tree produces apples, so do I fulfil the function of my nature. I have no need to trouble myself with what others may think.