Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 28, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with pianist Olga Steeb
Camille Saint-Saëns was many things. Also a scholar and writer of wide-ranging interests and an equally wide-ranging traveler, he was a multifaceted musician who excelled as a keyboardist, composer, conductor, teacher, and editor.
But if anything could be said to be central to so protean a life and career, it would be the piano. He began piano lessons at the age of three and his first compositions for the instrument followed soon after. He was ten when he made his public debut, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat, K. 450, for which Saint-Saëns composed his own cadenza. (In encore he offered to play any Beethoven piano sonata - audience choice - from memory.) In addition to a large body of solo piano music, he wrote five piano concertos, all of which he premiered himself. In August 1921 he wrapped up his virtuoso career with a special concert celebrating 75 years of public performances.
Saint-Saëns composed his Second Piano Concerto in 1868. The great Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein - one of the well-connected Saint-Saëns' legion of industry friends - came to Paris in the spring for a series of eight concerto performances, all conducted by Saint-Saëns. Before the series concluded, Rubinstein decided he also wanted to make his Parisian conducting debut on this trip, with Saint-Saëns as his soloist. The most convenient date was only three weeks away at that point, so Saint-Saëns set to work, finishing this Concerto in 17 days. He gave the premiere on May 13, with Rubinstein conducting.
Saint-Saëns lived to scorn the work of Debussy and Stravinsky (among others) and is often regarded as a conservative - if not reactionary - composer. But in the early and middle years of his career Saint-Saëns championed the most progressive wing of contemporary music (including Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt) and his own music was often highly original in form.
His G-minor Piano Concerto is a case in point. Though in three movements, it's overall shape is much more that of a symphony minus its first movement than that of a conventional concerto. The basic pulse of the opening movement is slow, although often filled with rapid figuration. It begins strikingly, with a solo cadenza that sounds much like Liszt improvising on one of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier preludes. The theme that the soloist introduces after the orchestral entrance is said to be taken from an exercise by Gabriel Fauré, one of Saint-Saëns' pupils at the École Niedermayer in the early 1860s. Saint-Saëns develops it brilliantly, although the glitter of crashing keyboard cascades is more apparent in this toccata-like movement than motivic elaboration. (The virtuosity of the work challenged even Saint-Saëns himself, who found that the tight schedule did not allow him enough time to practice what he was writing.) The movement ends with another cadenza, into which the orchestra creeps as the soloist returns to the opening material.
The Scherzo also begins with a surprise, a soft plucked chord in the strings and a little timpani riff. The pianist comes in with a blithe tune that comes from the main theme of the first movement. Obsessive motivic manipulation - of this first theme and of the closely related second theme first heard in bassoon and low strings - is central to this movement, though sparkling filigree is seldom more than an impulse away. This movement, with its insouciant lilt, was the clear audience favorite at the premiere.
Saint-Saëns continues the transformation of his main theme in the finale, a muscular tarantella dance. He also continues to surprise us with his opening gambit, this time four bars of introductory rumble begun by the soloist. This rumble comes back many times, punctuating the athletically leaping dance. The technical bravura is as dazzling as the compositional craftsmanship that imbues the flamboyantly expressed energy with such coherent force.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.