CAMILLE SAINT SAËNS: Violin Concerto No. 3 in B minor, op. 61

Camille Saint Saëns was born in Paris on October 9, 1835, and died in Algiers on December 16, 1921. He composed the Third Violin Concerto in March 1880 for Pablo de Sarasate,who gave the premiere at a Châtelet concert in Paris on January 2, 1881. In addition to the solo violin, the score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.

As a young man, Saint Saëns was dazzling in his quickness, whether in music or almost any other field of study. By the time he was three he had composed his first little piece, and by the age of ten he had made his formal debut as a pianist at the Salle Pleyel in Paris with a program of Mozart and Beethoven concertos (then little heard and not respected in France). As an encore he offered to play any one of Beethoven’s piano sonatas from memory!

He learned Latin from a private tutor and quickly made his way through the classics, years later regretting that he had never had time to learn Greek, too. He became particularly interested in mathematics and the natural sciences, and for the rest of his life he pursued studies in astronomy, archaeology, and geology. He entered the Conservatoire at the age of thirteen, won prizes as an organist, and then studied composition with Fromental Halévy. Although he never won the Prix de Rome, recognition of his creative talents came early. Not without reason, Hector Berlioz, wittiest of romantic composer critics, said of him, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.”

In the early years Saint Saëns was a devotee of the new music of Wagner and Liszt, defending Tannhäuser and Lohengrin against the attacks of French critics. He played Schumann in his recitals, then almost unheard of in France. Liszt inspired his own significant ventures into the medium of the symphonic poem. He worked on behalf of older composer as well: Bach, Handel, Rameau, Gluck, and Mozart. In short, he was a representative of many of the newest trends in music (even his historical interests made him “modern,” since it was just at this time that the discipline of musicology, and its pursuit of older music, was developing).

Following the shock of French defeat in the Franco Prussian War (including months of a debilitating siege of Paris in late 1870 and early 1871), Saint Saëns was one of the leaders of a movement to reestablish French art, particularly with the aim of promoting musical forms that seemed to have been dominated for decades by German composers. This meant the abstract instrumental forms of symphony and concerto. Since the early part of Berlioz’s career forty years before, there had been virtually no French composers interested in large form concert music, instead the opera and ballet attracted the attention of composers and audiences. Shortly after the Siege of Paris had been lifted, Saint Saëns founded the Société Nationale de Musique, with the motto “ars gallica,” to promote new French music, especially in the abstract genres. In addition to Saint Saëns himself, the Society included in its organizing committee Fauré, Franck, and Lalo. Over the years the Society sponsored premieres of important new works by leading French composers.

By this time Saint Saëns had already composed three piano concertos and two violin concertos, but these early works were relatively light in character with frivolous finales that suited the prevailing mood of the frivolous Second Empire so well characterized by the flippant operettas of Jacques Offenbach. The later concertos—including the last two for piano, the Cello Concerto, and the Third Violin Concerto, are altogether more serious.

Saint-Saëns often experimented with the layout of the movements in his concertos, but for the Third Violin Concerto, he returned to the orthodox fast-slow-fast pattern. The musical content and the brilliance of the solo part have made it a great favorite. The opening theme is almost obsessed with a turn figure made of half-steps, and this generates a fairly serious Allegro (it is a musical fingerprint that pops up in many of Saint-Saëns’s concertos). Like Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, this one omits an orchestral introduction, allowing the soloist to enter almost at once over a tremolo in the strings. The composer’s orchestral scoring is deliciously subtle. When we hear the main theme for the first time, at the very beginning, it is followed by a series of punctuating chords in the woodwinds. At later returns of this theme, the punctuating chords are played by horns and later by the trumpets—a careful gradation of intensity and brilliance that was rare in French scores of the day. The first movement unfolds in a straightforward sonata form with a sweetly expressive second theme expressed in delicate triplets.

The slow movement opens with the violinist playing a gently rocking barcarolle, while woodwind solos surround it with zephyr breezes. Before the melody has run its course, the winds and solo violin trade roles. Throughout this songlike movement, the music never lifts its voice, finally dying away in delicate accompanimental traceries.

The finale opens with a slow introduction derived from a motif in the slow movement. Then, however, it begins a bright staccato tune with hints of Spanish color—a reminder that Saint-Saëns wrote the Concerto while visiting Spain, all the while intending it for Pablo de Sarasate, the greatest Spanish violinist of the century. The second theme is more overtly passionate in expression, though Saint-Saëns reserves this for contrast, along with a hushed melody that follows it sweetly in the strings, against the more assertive “Spanish” tune that dominates with its energy and drive. —© S. L.