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Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103 "Egyptian"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Krzysztof Urbanski, conductor / Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, plays MacMillan & Saint-Saëns Jun. 20 - 22, 2013
© Peter Laki


Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) in F major, Op. 103
Born October 9, 1835 in Paris, France
Died December 16, 1921 in Algiers, Algeria

Camille Saint-Saëns was an indefatigable traveler in his later years. He especially liked the Mediterranean climate of the North African shores. He regularly returned to Algiers (where he died at the age of 86 in 1921), and visited Egypt on numerous occasions. During these trips he always kept his ears open for local melodies, which inspired him in his compositions. (His long-standing interest in the Middle East is also evident from his best-known opera, Samson and Delilah, completed in 1877.) In addition to human music, Saint-Saëns even notated the chirping of crickets in Egypt, and claimed to have used that motif in his Fifth Piano Concerto. Yet Saint-Saëns, committed classicist as he was, never allowed those unusual features to break up the crystal-clear musical structures that were the hallmark of his style. He was a keen observer of the world, but he never lost himself in the distant places he visited: his uniquely Parisian wit is in evidence at every turn.

The movement containing most of the local color is the second, an Andante whose first theme, preceded by an agitated introduction, conjures up Middle Eastern associations by the frequent use of the augmented second. This rhapsodic melody is followed by a more placid one, quoting, according to Saint-Saëns himself, “a Nubian love song that I heard sung by the boatmen on the Nile as I went down the river in a dahabieh [a type of large passenger boat].” The frequent parallel triads of the piano passages, which never remain within the bounds of any one tonality, reinforce our sense of removal from our usual environment. (Michael Stegemann, author of an in-depth study of Saint- Saëns’s concertos, noted some surprising similarities between this movement and Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, written about a decade later.)

This unique centerpiece is flanked by two fast movements, equally pleasant though less exotic in style. The first movement begins with a melody that would be quite banal were it not for a slight modal flavor in the harmonizations that changes its character considerably. Some dazzling pianistic fireworks soon follow; a lyrical second theme is developed and taken through numerous transformations in melodic shape and orchestral color. The recapitulation is particularly noteworthy for the way the first melody is broken up between the orchestra’s wind and string sections, while the piano adds virtuoso ornamental material.

The perpetual motion of the third-movement Molto allegro is only momentarily interrupted by more lyrical moments. In the words of an early commentator, its “gay little march tune might almost suggest a happy return to the Paris boulevards.”