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Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor / Gautier Capuçon, cello, plays Saint-Saëns Nov. 10 - 12, 2011
© Thomas May

It was only natural that Camille Saint-Saëns, who entered musical life as a prodigy, should feel especially at home when it comes to the concerto format.  A virtuoso pianist himself, Saint-Saëns played a significant role in introducing all five of Beethoven's piano concertos to skeptical French audiences.  He also composed and performed his own cycle of five concertos for the instrument.  For his first public recital in Paris (at the age of 10), Saint-Saëns performed piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven; as an encore, he offered to play the audience's choice from Beethoven's cycle of 32 piano sonatas-by memory.  Such feats of showmanship were simply taken for granted in a musical life marked by extraordinary productivity-not to mention longevity.  Saint-Saëns remained active before the public right up into his 86th year, giving his last performance just ten days before he died in 1921.

The composer's long lifespan entailed an epic journey from the heyday of romanticism through the birth pangs of modernism and the trauma of the First World War.  It encompassed the revolutionary new music of Liszt and Wagner, which he boldly championed, and the breakthroughs of Debussy and Stravinsky.  Yet Saint-Saëns himself fell victim to the shifting tides of musical fashion. Though his output was enormous, ranging across all the major genres-he was even an early pioneer of the film score-only a handful of these works has remained an active part of the repertory.  His most familiar compositions date from the 1870s and 1880s, when Saint-Saëns was at the peak of his fame.  Along with the first of his two cello concertos, these include the tone poem Danse Macabre, the opera Samson and Delilah, the Third Symphony (the "Organ" Symphony), and Carnival of the Animals.

It was early in this period that Saint-Saëns wrote the Cello Concerto No. 1 for Auguste Tolbecque (1830-1919), the work's dedicatee and part of an originally Belgian family of musicians.  In an era when pianists and violinists tended to hog the spotlight  as solo instrumentalists, Tolbecque was enhancing the status of the cello through his reputation as an educator with a deep understanding of the instrument's history.  (Along with a book on the art of the luthier, he published a collection invigoratingly titled La Gymnastique du Violoncelle.)  Tolbecque's premiere of the Cello Concerto in January 1873 in Paris also marked an important turning point in establishing Saint-Saëns' own reputation as a composer.  The work has secured a spot as one of the best-loved of 19th-century concertos.

Like Mendelssohn in some ways, with whom he also ranks as one of music history's most remarkable prodigies, Saint-Saëns often shows an inherent preference for neoclassical clarity and transparency.  Still-and despite his later reputation as a fading relic out of touch with early modernism-Saint-Saëns didn't unthinkingly parrot the classical forms he inherited.  Indeed, the First Cello Concerto is renowned for its condensation of the conventional concerto's three-movement format into an organically compact single movement of about 20 minutes.  Additionally, Saint-Saëns transcends the Romantic cliché of the solo protagonist as a hero in conflict with the orchestra.  His alternative is to carefully integrate the cellist into the orchestral fabric, though sufficient drama is generated by keeping the cellist at the center of attention throughout much of the work.

Dispensing with preliminary fuss, the orchestra yields center stage to the cellist immediately following a brisk opening chord.  Fast-flowing triplets come to a pause on a rising and falling half-step.  Together, both gestures-the agitated flow and the basic motivic idea-serve as the main opening theme group and recur as a unifying device. They are followed by a highly singable lyrical theme.  Saint-Saëns shows great ingenuity in developing his ideas but also allows ample room to embroider passing surface details and to make textural interplay between soloist and ensemble a central part of the discussion.  Tempo and key change as a lyrical interlude provides passage to an enchanting middle section-an embedded slow movement-in which muted strings supply a sweet minuet accompaniment while the cello, playing high in its register, affably joins in the serenade.  In a flash, agitated strings of flowing triplets bring a recapitulation of the opening motifs.  The orchestra provides commentary as the cello reconsiders the earlier themes through a highly virtuosic lens.  Unobtrusively and from its depths, the soloist inserts a lyrically fresh but subtly related motif into the picture. Saint-Saëns fashions an arresting coda for the concerto. The pace and passion quicken, a sequence of sustained chords from the orchestra then steers the music from A minor to major, and the field is left to the soloist for a concluding flourish touching on both the lyrical and the gymnastic.