Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, tam-tam, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 6, 1975, Sidney Harth conducting, with soloist Lorin Hollander
One can look upon the life of Camille Saint-Saëns with equal parts of admiration and awe. The man was astonishingly multi-dimensional: in addition to being a virtuoso pianist and prolific composer of works in all forms, he authored books on diverse subjects, he was a linguist, and an insatiable world traveler. It was, in fact, one of his journeys in northern Africa, in 1896, that inspired the present concerto.
In relation to Saint-Saëns’ prowess at the keyboard, Hector Berlioz said, “He is an absolutely shattering master pianist.” Clearly, one needs to be at least a master pianist in order to perform the composer’s piano concertos, and since Saint-Saëns himself was the soloist in the premieres of all five of his brilliant works for piano and orchestra, we can easily accept Berlioz’ opinion. A younger French composer, Claude Debussy, was less enthusiastic about Saint-Saëns as composer.
“Does no one care sufficiently for Saint-Saëns,” wrote Debussy with a poison pen, “to tell him he has written music enough and that he would be better employed in following his belated vocation of explorer?” With friends like this…
Its exotic flourishes in the middle movement notwithstanding, the “Egyptian” Concerto is from the typical Saint-Saëns mold, which is to say it is melodious and facile and exudes the sophisticated charm and brilliance of a craftsman of the highest order. Fully understanding his own artistic identity, the composer put his credo in perspective when he wrote, “The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music.” On this basis, Saint-Saëns certainly understood the art of music.
As with several other of Saint-Saëns’ concertos, the very beginning of this one does not immediately reveal its virtuosic intentions. Rather, the first movement opens with an unprepossessing melody, which, however, soon gives way to characteristic jet-speed scales and arpeggios, and to a certain urgency. The opening of the Andante second movement, with its dramatic, Near East exoticism, tells us the reason for the concerto's being dubbed “ Egyptian.” And it is said that the lyric melody of this movement’s mid-section is an authentic Nubian song the composer heard on a boat crossing the Nile. For the final movement, he eschews foreign picturesqueness, and returns to his native brand of French glitter, songfulness, and keyboard pyrotechnics, all of which should leave an audience “completely satisfied.”