French Piano Concertos in the Tradition of Liszt

Saint-Saëns' piano concertos are just right for celebrating spring. © Charles Thibo
Saint-Saëns’ piano concertos are just right for celebrating spring. © Charles Thibo

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

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de Chareli

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8 thoughts on “French Piano Concertos in the Tradition of Liszt”

  1. No problem, I totally understand how the cor anglais gets locked into your thoughts! It happens to be one of my most favourite instruments. Once upon a time, I even got to play on one, briefly. 🙂 Three extra scales sounds like a good idea anyway. Enjoy! 🙂

  2. I read your post earlier and liked the description and background information about the composer! Now I’m listening to it – gorgeous. But – blooper- that is not an English Horn at the beginning, it’s what we on this side of the pond call a French Horn (German Waldhorn, I guess, or just plain horn). You will enjoy reading this article, especially the etymology part: BTW, There are lots of jokes and stories about this confusion of terminology. 🙂 However, I’m glad you brought this piece to our attention!

    1. Indeed, I have blundered here. I should have known better. I saw the instrument in front of my eyes when I wrote the post, but somehow I had the “cor anglais” locked into my thoughts. It is a FRENCH HORN, no doubt. I will correct this at once and as a way of repentance I will practice three extra scales this afternoon.

  3. Thank you for this post. I love French music but I am not sure if I know this piano concerto. It seems that our Classical radio mostly plays certain pieces by him over and over again

    1. I tried to open the link you sent on the music. It seems that you can only hear it if you buy it or stream it. I thought I could hear a small bit for free

      1. Hm, It worked when I just tried, but it takes some time to load. You can hear a few bars of each movement. You may also find it on Spotify.

  4. One of my music teachers at school told us an anecdote about Camille de Saint-Saëns. Apparently, he was something of a joker. He allegedly went to visit a fellow composer once (I forget which one). The host was out and the butler told Saint-Saëns “Faites comme chez vous”. Left to wait for a considerable amount of time, Saint-Saëns rearranged the furniture in the drawing room… the way he would have liked it in his own home.

  5. I have listened to these works (I believe performed by Hough…?) and enjoyed them. I love Rogé’s Ravel (although maybe not as much as Bavouzet’s), and Dutoit is wonderful. I will have to check these out. Thanks!

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