Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33

by Max Derrickson

Camille Saint-Saëns     (Born in Paris, October 9, 1835; died in Algiers, Algeria, December 16, 1921)

Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33
1. Allegro non troppo
2. Allegretto con moto
3. Allegro non troppo (Tempo primo)

Saint-Saëns wrote his first Cello Concerto in 1872 in the wake of one of France’s most extraordinary moments in history, a moment of upheaval and newness and tragedy.  In the few short years before this Concerto, France had experienced, in short succession, a humiliating defeat at the hands of the German States in the Franco-Prussian War, the dissolution of Napoleon III’s somewhat brief Second Empire, another Parisian revolt, and the setting up of the short-lived Commune of Paris.  Saint-Saëns himself fled the Siege of Paris while the city suffered bombardment and starvation.  When stability emerged after this dire chaos, the French found that they had retained a strong pride of self that galvanized a desire for a new French art.  To the rescue, returned Camille Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns had been in the public eye as an extraordinary prodigy since 1845 at the age of 10.  Despite his reputation as a somewhat radical innovator in his more youthful days, he nonetheless rose in stature through the stuffy Parisian music circles.  By the time Paris began calling for a new, French-minded music to reestablish its national self-esteem in 1871, Saint-Saëns was at the ready.  One of his responses was to co-found the Société Nationale de Musique whose motto was “Ars gallica” (French art). Specifically, the Société sought two nationalistic goals: to promote French instrumental music, and to repel interest in German music.  Right off the bat, Saint-Saëns began work on a concerto for cello, an instrument which in those times was highly overshadowed by the public’s obsession with piano and violin concertos.  It premiered in 1873 to thunderous acclaim, hailed equally as new and innovative, and also as Saint-Saëns’ return to tradition from “his all-too-obvious divergence from classicism.”  If the critics sounded of a double mind, at least they rightly recognized it to be an instant masterpiece.

The Concerto was, indeed, by French standards of the times, innovative in two main aspects.  Most obvious is how Saint-Saëns blended all three movements into one uni-movement without pauses in between.  And he treated the thematic sequencing with a “cyclical” development – a technique where the musical motive for the whole piece is stated up front, then morphed and varied from, and then returned to.  Such inventiveness was hardly “traditional,” as some critics claimed, and ironically the innovations, in a larger sense, were borrowed heavily from Germanic composers.   But everyone could agree on how captivating it was.
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Classifications vanish when, with the very opening cello solo, we feel swept into the current of that instrument’s majestic power and rich singing ability.  The virtuosity of the cello shines brighter as the movement proceeds without sacrificing any musical integrity.  The second main theme,
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The Allegretto is one of those wonderful creations – like Saint-Saëns’ other cello-featured piece, The Swan from the Carnival of the Animals (1886) – that take us to another realm of beauty, and it has enchanted audiences ever since its Parisian premiere.  An aura of antiquity colors these passages, harkening perhaps from the great François Couperin (French composer, 1668-1733).  There is a genuine, unvarnished
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The finale offers songfulness and a certain operatic drama that spin off in turns.  The cello melts and burns and professes deeply felt emotions,
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It’s hard not to marvel that Saint-Saëns’ first attempt at a cello concerto could have been gotten so right.