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Concerto for Cello No. 1

Composed in 1873 for the cellist Auguste Tolbecque, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 moves from exhilarating energy to great charm to impassioned, virtuosic lyricism.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born in Paris, France, on October 9, 1835; died in Algiers on December 16, 1921
  • Year completed: 1872
  • First performance: January 19, 1873, at Paris Conservatoire with soloist Auguste Tolbecque and the orchestra of the Société des Concerts conducted by Édouard Deldevez
  • First BSO performance: December 10, 1881, with cello soloist Carl Bayrhoffer and Georg Henschel conducting
  • Approximate duration: 20 minutes

In addition to the solo cello, the score calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 20 minutes long.

If Camille Saint-Saëns had been just a pianist, he would have been as famous and as acclaimed as Anton Rubinstein, Leschetizky, Paderewski, or any other lion of the age. Yet playing the piano was only one of many activities, not all of them concerned with music, that consumed him over a very long life. He was an immensely productive composer, producing music “as an apple-tree bears apples,” as he described it himself. No genre of music was untouched—operas, ballets, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs, choral music, all in abundance; even a film score, one of the first ever composed. For many years he was organist at the Madeleine church in Paris; he conducted frequently; he wrote articles for the press and published half a dozen books; he wrote poetry and plays; he took a close interest in astronomy, archaeology, philosophy, and classical literature; he spoke many languages and traveled tirelessly all over Europe and North Africa giving concerts, including a series of all of Mozart’s piano concertos in London; he went to Scandinavia, Russia, Indochina, and Uruguay; he was involved in the whole spectrum of music-making in France for all of his career, and was a prime mover in the Société Nationale de Musique. His tastes ranged effortlessly from Wagner to the Baroque, and the composers he most admired were Mozart, Rameau, Gluck, Schumann, Berlioz, and Liszt. He was a modernist and a reactionary at the same time, an atheist who composed a huge quantity of religious music, a deeply serious and thoughtful composer whose best-known work is the frivolous Carnival of the Animals.

Such a person is rare in any culture, and now that we can test his achievement solely by his music and his writings, his immense gifts are not so readily appreciated. Much of his music is bound to remain in obscurity, and there are few who would be bold enough to measure his achievement as a composer against Wagner or Verdi or Brahms, yet in productivity and versatility he is certainly a rival to Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. His works are appealing, superbly crafted, and full of surprises. He is very French in his desire to impress his hearers with the delicacy and rightness of every movement, to display impeccable taste, and to paint always in sensitive colors. His word-setting is faultless, his fugues are full of ingenious invention, his piano writing bears the signature of a brilliant pianist.

He wrote five piano concertos (and played them all himself), three violin concertos, and two cello concertos, as well as miscellaneous pieces for violin, horn, harp, and piano with orchestra. Of the two cello concertos, the first is much the more frequently played; in fact, it is a piece that every serious cello student confronts because of its excellent illustration of the cello’s range of tone and color and the efficient (not impossibly virtuoso) technique that it requires. It is also in a single movement that exhibits a diversity of tempo and mood.

The main idea, introduced at once by the soloist, is a swirl of notes which eventually gives way to a lyrical second theme over sustained strings. When that is done, the music accelerates into some bravura double-stops for the cello and an exultant tutti for the orchestra, like the end of a recapitulation.

It then proceeds to a development section, but instead of the normal sequence of a concerto first movement it recapitulates only the lyrical theme and then comes to a halt. With a distinct change of tempo, the muted strings give out a delicate passage, like a minuet on tiptoe. The soloist replies with four notes that will be important later, and then a countermelody to the orchestra’s whisperings, and this fairy-like “second movement” wends its way toward a return of the cello’s four notes, now low in the bass.

Some further development of the opening material intervenes before another change of tempo for what serves as a finale with a theme whose first four notes were so neatly hinted at in the previous section. Although its tempo is “un peu moins vite” (“a bit less lively”) there is enough energy in this part to propel the music toward the final return of the opening music and a coda that concludes exultantly in the major key.

There were many precedents for single-movement concertos from Weber, Schumann, Liszt, and others, yet this work bears witness to Saint-Saëns’s thoughtful ingenuity at handling a single movement with a variety of themes and tempos. Because he was well-known from an early age as a virtuoso pianist and organist, it was assumed that he could not possibly compose. Least of all could he compose for the opera, it was said, which is why his first two operas, The Silver Bell and Samson and Delilah, each had to wait many years before they were performed. His third opera, The Yellow Princess, staged in 1872, was his first opera to be played in Paris, and his energetic organization of a new concert society, the Société Nationale, founded in 1871, enabled him to present his own music in defiance of other concert bodies that had no faith in him.

Thus to have a cello concerto played by the Société des Concerts in 1873, against the wishes of the conductor, was a small triumph, the start of a broader recognition that eventually led to his high standing as one of the most respected and most performed musicians in France.

The soloist in 1873 was an interesting individual, Auguste Tolbecque, to whom Saint-Saëns dedicated the concerto. His father was one of three Belgian Tolbecque brothers, all violinists active in Paris in a variety of orchestras, all frequently confused with each other in the records. Auguste studied at the Conservatoire and like his father and uncles played in a number of orchestras, including that of the Société des Concerts. He also played the viola da gamba, which was very unusual at the time, and was interested in early music. He had a collection of old instruments, now part of the great Brussels Conservatory collection. We are also told that he attempted to revive the “componium,” a composing machine which could improvise on any theme. He wrote an opera, edited a music journal, wrote some books on early instruments, and died in 1919 aged 88.

A second cello concerto came from Saint-Saëns in 1902. This was in two movements, and its nostalgic tone made it seem very old-fashioned at that time. It has always remained in the shadows of its exhilarating predecessor.

Hugh Macdonald

Hugh Macdonald taught music at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and was Professor of Music at Glasgow and at Washington University in St Louis. He has written books on Scriabin and Berlioz and was general editor of the 26-volume New Berlioz Edition. His recent books include Beethoven’s Century (2008), Music in 1853 (2012), and Bizet (2014).

The first American performance of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 took place on February 17, 1876; Carl Zerrahn conducted the Harvard Musical Association at the Boston Music Hall, with soloist Wulf Fries.