02 Mar 2016

SAINT-SAËNS – Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian”

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 — 1921): Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Opus 103, “Egyptian”


Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones; timpani, tam tam; strings


Performance time: 29 minutes



Born in 1835, when the Romantic era was still young, the spectacularly gifted French composer Camille Saint-Saëns lived through one of the most turbulent periods in music history. The music critic Harold C. Schonberg, who reigned for two decades at The New York Times, described him as the greatest of all music prodigies, outpacing even Mozart and Mendelssohn. As an adult, Saint-Saëns recalled experiencing the aleatoric sounds of early childhood as music; his description of a two-year-old’s overheard “symphony of the kettle,” with its slow, eventful crescendo, is an anecdote to marvel at. He began composing at age 3, and performed one of Beethoven’s violin sonatas in a Paris salon at age 4; by age 10, in a legendary concert at the Salle Pleyel, he followed his performance of a movement from Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto with an offer to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory. “This young man knows everything, but he lacks in experience,” noted Berlioz — not a surprising observation, considering the age of the “young man” in question.

Saint-Saëns became a protege of Franz Liszt, who declared him “the world’s greatest organist,” and he won the ungrudging admiration of Berlioz, who called him “an absolutely shattering master pianist.” His mastery of the composer’s tools was staggering: encyclopedic knowledge of the orchestral instruments, of music history and theory, of harmony and structure. He was a visionary, co-founding the Société Nationale de Musique for the advancement of French music and appreciating his mentor Liszt as few of his contemporaries did, noting — with remarkable perspicacity — that they celebrated Liszt as the world’s greatest pianist in part because that was easier than appreciating his innovations and importance as a composer.

If Saint-Saëns valued innovation and importance in composition, he seemed to harbor no illusions about his own gifts as a composer. “First among composers of the second rank” was his famously modest self-assessment, perhaps underestimating his own achievements. But this remark would be echoed later by critics. Did he make it all seem too easy? Throughout his career Saint-Saëns produced music with a touch of the old masters and seeming effortlessness, “as a tree produces apples.” His tone poems, operas, symphonies and concertos mobilize the astounding grasp of cultural history and musical erudition he was famous for, but his harmonic and melodic inventiveness — dazzling on their own terms — remained resolutely traditional at a time of musical revolution. By the time of Saint-Saëns’ death in 1921, his style of composition was in the background while experimental forms and atonal exploration were in the foreground.

Now, in a time of musical eclecticism, we can appreciate the depth and breadth of Saint-Saëns’ gifts without taking sides in a partisan musical debate. Like Liszt, he possessed both spectacular keyboard skills and a mastery of compositional technique that could take him anywhere he wanted to go — though Saint-Saëns did not particularly want to go anywhere new. His ease, ingenuity and productivity gave rise to one of the most famous quips in music history — that Saint-Saëns “produces music the way trees produce leaves.”

Saint-Saëns’ facility for musical drama and scene-painting has never really been surpassed, giving shorter works such as his ever-popular Danse Macabre a timeless visceral appeal. The tone poems on classical subjects have heart-pounding immediacy; no action movie has ever captured the dangerous thrill of joy-riding in a stolen car more intensely than Saint-Saëns’ Phaeton, but in this case the car is dad’s chariot, and dad is Apollo. In Omphale’s Spinning Wheel he twines deftly concocted melodies to convey the whirl of twisting yarn with a menacing seduction; with a skill unique to this composer, the wheel’s blinding speed is conveyed with slow, spare phrases. But his piano concertos showcase another aspect of his musical range: Full of delicious melody, pianistic texture and flash, they could only have been composed by a virtuoso of the keyboard.

The historical record, however, suggests that as a pianist, the former child-prodigy grew wary of the spotlight later in life. One of his most enduringly popular works for the instrument, Carnival of the Animals, was originally a party piece intended only for private performance; though he tried to suppress its publication, its charm won out in the end. His melodic, inventive piano concertos served him as ideal concert works in the Romantic mold — melodic, entertaining, and laden with novel effects. But by the time he composed his Piano Concerto No. 5, he had passed his 60th birthday and had not written a piano concerto for 20 years. Always a standard-bearer for musical tradition, he composed the Fifth for the occasion of his 1896 concert at the historic Salle Pleyel in Paris, programmed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his famous début there. The concert took place on May 6, and both the concerto and Saint-Saëns performance were acclaimed.

What to Listen For

Saint-Saëns’ music almost always gives us a scintillating combination of tradition and novelty; in the case of his Piano Concerto No. 5, the nickname, “The Egyptian,” holds out that promise before we hear a note. He composed this work in the Egyptian city of Luxor, a sunny and historic location where he often spent time in the winter. But the concerto’s exoticism is not just imported from Egypt. It also incorporates sources from Java, and from Spain.

For the style-conscious French, Spain had always represented southern warmth and sensuality. But by the 1870s, the lure of foreign cultures, tinged with the danger of otherness, beckoned to the French from far beyond southern Europe. Their fascination with eastern locales such as Egypt and Java was raging in the 1890s Paris of the Belle Époque, lumped under the heading of “Japonisme.” According to Saint-Saëns himself, the concerto was a musical representation of a sea voyage. In listening, we can well imagine its wide range of musical motifs depicting exotic ports of call.

Yet for all of its unusual geographic color, the concerto sticks to the traditional arrangement of three movements in fast-slow-fast tempo. In the first, marked allegro animato, two themes draw us in: a deceptively plain theme introduced by the pianist and which escalates in technical demands as it repeats, along with a more introspective theme that we can imagine as the inward thoughts of a contemplative traveler.

We might expect the second movement, marked andante, to continue the softly lyrical close of the first; instead it jolts us with a percussive bang and a peppery announcement in the strings before it gives way to a more traditional and gentler tempo. This section, with the walking pace of a traditional andante, is built on a romantic Egyptian song from the Nubian culture. Saint-Saëns was clearly fascinated by the emotional richness of this evocative air, which he heard while sailing the Nile in an Egyptian boat called a dahabiah. As the movement draws to its close, we can hear the sounds of nature in the Nile habitat depicted with the composer’s characteristic vividness.

Does this concerto transport us from East to West? To some listeners, the piano’s bass rumbling in the final molto allegro movement suggests the deck-shaking vibrations of ships’ propellers. Here the sea voyage that Saint-Saëns imagined seems to be drawing us back to the urban clamor of western Europe as the soloist, performing the piano theme at a furious pace, competes with a second theme in the strings and woodwinds. Alternately twining and tense, the two themes are resolved in an emphatic finale.