Just one movement. So promising. Like the dawn announcing a beautiful day. Unfinished business? No. Camille de Saint-Saëns cast his first violin concerto in A major (op. 22) in a single short movement of some 15 minutes, and if you have a closer look at the score, you may be able to identify three distinct sections. And as much as I hate to admit it, researching the background of this piece has proved rather difficult.
In the early years of this blog, I bought two books dealing with Saint-Saëns, both very good, both written by French musicologists. Both devote less than a paragraph to the piece. I had ordered at my bookstore a third book on the composer’s works some five weeks ago, but it failed to arrive on time. As for the internet – forget it. I drew a blank when I looked for details going beyond the date of composition and the dedicatee.
Meeting Pablo de Sarasate
Saint-Saëns composed the concerto in 1859 and he dedicated it to the violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Sarasate was 15 years old when the composer met him for the first time, a prodigal child from Spain. Born in 1844 he started his studies in Paris at the age of twelve, a few years before the first encounter with Saint-Saëns. However the piece lay dormant for eight years; it wasn’t performed until April 4, 1867 by Sarasate himself and published a year later.
The violin concerto is a true gem, not because its overall brilliance or the many occasions the soloist gets to rise and shine, but rather for its compact structure. In a very traditional way, Saint-Saëns opposes a gentle chant-like second theme to the energetic first theme. The slow section then follows a very pure melodical line while in the third section the themes are repeated, again in a very traditional way.
The influence of Germany
As you can see and hear, the concerto is by no means revolutionary, but it is well-crafted, taking up the Romanticists’ sound – I have already pointed out Franz Liszt’s friendship with Saint-Saëns. The recording of Saint-Saëns’ three violin concertos by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris under Lawrence Foster and with Liviu Prunaru as the soloist renders this spirit very well and is truly worth listening.
Perhaps this is the moment to say a few words about Saint-Saëns’ aesthetical principles and his way to compose. I think that of all the germanophile French composers, he was the most “German” with regards to his methodology. The French researcher Jacques Bonnaure writes that Saint-Saëns postulated that each musical genre requires its specific form and a corresponding mode of expression that must be respected. Past works may be used as blueprints and tradition can supply for each genre the perfect form. The latter should not be just copied but used as a source of inspiration.
Form or expression?
At the same time Saint-Saëns thought that music should be easy to understand by the audience without being superficial. Bonnaure writes that Saint-Saëns “is the off-spring of a tradition characterized by clarity and intuition”. The composer himself said: “For me, art relates to the form. Expression and passion rather seduce the amateur.” The violin concerto respects these principles, and it is perhaps the fact that the composer did exactly what he had in mind that made the piece appear of little interest both to his contemporaries and to today’s researchers. Because superficial brilliance is more valued than austerity and truthfulness, right?
© Charles Thibo
Miracles happen sometimes, and in this case I am horrified to admit that Amazon succeeded where my librarian failed. I got that third book within days after ordering it where I do not want to order and just before this post was about to be published. So far for the miracle. Unfortunately this author – the violinist Jean Gallois – does not have to say much about the violin concerto either. At least he informs us that it requires a certain virtuosity and it should, otherwise Sarasate would have thrown a tantrum. Gallois qualifies it as a message of light and happiness. I agree wholeheartedly.