A horn? A French Horn? Well yes, Camille de Saint-Saëns opens his Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Major, op. 17, on the sound of a horn. Not the ordinary introduction, but then again the French composer wasn’t an ordinary man, oh no! You will like this concerto from the first moment on. The triumphant trumpets are followed quite quickly by the piano – relief, there is a piano! – and finally by the strings to move through the piece on a brilliant melody that reminds me of the soundtracks of some Disney children movies. Optimistic, lighthearted. The horn is later echoed by the flutes, then the strings play the main theme of the first movement – ten minutes of joy set to music.
The contrast with the second movement could not be bigger. The double bass’ start with a melody reminding me of Liszt’s “Marche funèbre” and the piano doesn’t really help, it only underlines the sadness the melody exudes. But here comes our initial theme from the first movement again and helps us overcome any gloomy feelings, that languish vanishes or rather transforms itself in a sweet, sweet melancholy.
Playing with fire
The third movement makes up for he lack of verve in the second movement. Allegro con fuoco, and fire there is, fireworks of joy are the hallmark of the finale. This piece amazes me each time I listen to it. Saint-Saëns wrote this piece in 1858, four more piano concertos were to follow, of which I would like to single out additionally No. 4, written in 1875 in four movements grouped in pairs, and No. 5, written in 1896, for their beauty and the pleasure the give me. No. 4 is also remarkable because of its unusual structure, it strike me as very modern.
First concert at age 10
We have met Saint-Saëns already at Christmas, where I presented his oratorium. If Tchaikovsky is Russia’s most accomplished composers of beautiful melodies, Saint-Saëns can easily take up that challenge for France. Like so many composers, he was a precocious musician. He took his first piano lessons when he was three years old and gave his first performance in public aged ten: he played Beethoven and Mozart. He started his musical studies at the Paris Conservatoire in 1848 and studied organ, composition and orchestration.
For most of his professional life, he worked as an organist at the cathedral La Madeleine in Paris (1857-77). It is here that the German composer and star pianist Franz Liszt hear him play for the first time and praised his talent. Saint-Saëns in return admired Liszt as a composer. He organized and conducted at his own expense concerts where Liszt’s works were performed.
Promoting French musicians
For a brief time, Saint-Saëns taught musical students (1861-65), Gabriel Fauré was one of them. He made a bigger impact on France’s musical scene with the founding of the Société Nationale de Musique (National Music Society) in 1871. It’s purpose was to promote the music of French contemporary composers and musicians. He was certainly part of the musical avant-garde of France and one of the first to recognized the incredible innovation and energy of Richard Wagner’s music. That would not prevent him from arguing for a ban of German music during World War I.
The piano concertos have been recorded by Pascal Roger and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Charles Dutoit at Decca.
© Charles Thibo