Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 (Piano Reduction for 2 pianos, 2 copies)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 (Piano Reduction for 2 pianos, 2 copies)
Preface of the full score
Camille Saint-Saëns was visibly the most brilliantly versatile and prolific French composer of his age, leading the way in French musical life from the second half of the nineteenth century to the close of his long career in the twentieth. His prodigious musical creativity encompassed keyboard performance and composition and he also published critical writings on music. Born in Paris of relatively unmusical parents, Saint-Saëns was taught piano from the age of three by his maternal great-aunt (after the death of his father). His first public concert appearance took place at the Salle Pleyel, in Paris, when he was aged ten, the programme, performed from memory, including Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos (the Mozart concerto performance had Saint-Saëns’ own cadenza). Around this time it was recommended that Saint-Saëns study composition with Pierre Maleden (who had studied with Fétis) and Gottfried Weber. Saint-Saëns also benefited from a polymathic education, developing tastes for French literature, classical languages, natural sciences, archaeology and philosophy alike, and even produced writings in some of these disciplines throughout his life.
Saint-Saëns was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire in 1848 and won the premier organ prize in 1851. He studied composition and orchestration with Halévy, and also accompaniment and singing. At this time he wrote several orchestral works, a choral piece and some smaller and incomplete pieces. His entry for the Prix de Rome failed to win, but in 1852 his Ode à Sainte-Cécile won first prize in a competition in Bordeaux. Two opéras comiques, begun in the 1850s, remained incomplete, but he did finish an overture, songs, a piano quintet, and another symphony (which won a second competition in Bordeaux). He also began work as an editor, on the works of Gluck, and would later edit works by the French clavecinists, Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt. At an early stage in his career Saint-Saëns was befriended by leading composers such as Pauline Viardot, Gounod, Rossini and Berlioz and also won the admiration of Liszt (who was very impressed by Saint-Saëns’ compositional skill and powers of extemporization). He served as a church organist from 1853, in his first appointment, at St Merry, earning the gratitude of the Abbé Gabriel for the composition of a Mass, and was consequently invited by the Abbé to accompany him to Italy on a trip (an experience which began a lifetime of habitual travel). His enviable reputation as a composer and virtuoso pianist was forged in the 1860s, and typified in successful performances of his First Piano Concerto in Paris and abroad. Saint-Saëns’ only professional teaching post occurred from 1861 to 1865 at the Ecole Niedermeyer, which existed to improve French church music. His students included Fauré and other French musicians, with whom he had lifelong bonds. A strict but inspiring pedagogue, Saint-Saëns generated intellectual excitement among his students with his broad-ranging interests in the arts. In the 1870s Saint-Saëns became active in promoting the music of other, prominent composers, both past and contemporary, particularly Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, and in 1871 co-founded the Société Nationale de Musique, for the purpose of promoting contemporary French music (committee members included Fauré, César Franck and Lalo). The Société gave premières of works by prominent and enduring French composers, including Debussy and Ravel. Saint-Saëns also wrote pieces for the Renaissance littéraire et artistique, the Gazette musicale and the Revue bleue, often in lively dialogue with critical opponents, and continued to write elsewhere for the rest of his career. He saw and admired Der Ring in Bayreuth in 1876, though much later, in response to the First World War, he felt compelled to change his critical standpoint on German music. Saint-Saëns married in 1875 but under unusual circumstances separated from his wife three years later, and apparently never formed another romantic attachment (his close friendships with other French musicians forming the mainstay of his relationships during the rest of his career). In 1877 the dedicatee of his opera Le timbre d’argent, Albert Libon, bequeathed Saint-Saëns 100,000 francs as a gift so he could devote himself entirely to composition. Continuing his distinguished career, Saint-Saëns was elected to the Académie des Beaux-Arts in 1881 (he became its president in 1901), and was made an officier of the Légion d’Honneur in 1884 (and a Grand Officier in 1900, receiving its Grande Croix in 1913). So noted was he that a Musée in his name was established in Dieppe in July 1890. He continued his concert schedule into the 1890s, travelling the world. The now notorious Le carnaval des animaux, from this period, was completed within a matter of days during a holiday in Austria, but only the famous ‘Le cygne’ was given during his lifetime. In Russia Saint-Saëns met Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rubinstein.
Even after the early twentieth-century decline of his popularity in France, Saint-Saëns was still regarded internationally, outside France, as the greatest French musician. His activity did not halt in the twentieth century, and perhaps even expanded, with many further honours. His labours, in which he had contributed compositions to almost every significant musical genre, performed, studied and written, and cultivated the music of predecessors and contemporaries, finally took him to his last days in Algiers, many decades after his initial fame, where he died still composing. He was given a state funeral in Paris.
Daniel M. Fallon and Sabina Teller Ratner note that ‘Saint-Saëns wrote in every 19th-century musical genre, but his most successful works are those based on traditional Viennese models, namely sonatas, chamber music, symphonies and concertos. … Throughout his career his art was one of amalgamation and adaptation rather than that of pursuing new and original paths’.1 The Second Piano Concerto certainly keeps allegiance to classical Viennese form and style, with a tendency in the first movement towards a more binary model. The composition and first performance of the work was in 1868, the autograph score (now in the Bibliothèque Nationale) being headed ‘Faubourg Saint-Honoré 168’ (that Paris street continues as one of the most fashionable quarters in Paris). The black-ink notation in the autograph is beautifully clear, neat, and organized, with occasional general clarifications of rhythm and dynamics in blue and red pencil markings. An example of rhythmic clarification is the precise indication ‘à huit croches’ (in red) at E in the first movement, meaning that, because of the extensively subdivided note values in the piano part, this bar is to be played as if it had eight and not four crotchet beats, and Saint-Saëns reinforces this by precisely numbering (in blue) the imagined crotchet beats in four pairs of tied crotchets. The printed score reproduced in the present edition is that published by the publishing house of Marie-Auguste Massacrié-Durand (1830-1909), who studied with Saint-Saëns and Franck at the Paris Conservatoire. The general mood of the movement is tragic and grand, the piano writing evidencing a ponderous, masculine tone. The initial, arpeggiated figuration of the unbarred opening rhapsody is redolent of Bach (especially some of the keyboard preludes) and indicates an archaizing tendency, based on Saint-Saëns’ lifelong respect for early music, that, in eclectic manner, coexisted with his reliance on Austro-German musical structures and (elsewhere in his output) with influences such as Oriental exoticism (as in the vivacious Africa Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra in the same key). The movement proper begins, after a distinctive orchestral fanfare (that also closes the movement), with a solemn, rhythmically emphatic accompanimental figure in the left hand that is then joined by a rhapsodic cantilena in the right (whose melodic contour is similar to that of the accompaniment). In the absence of a full Viennese sonata form, structural control and formal discipline is maintained over this opening thematic material by means of meticulous attention to harmonic rhythm and a prompt and even transition to the secondary tonal area (B-flat major) and subject group, where the rhapsodic feel continues. What also distinguishes the music at this very early stage is the high quality of its melodic invention, even if the rhythmic context is on the surface staid and pedantic (indeed, these latter characteristics seem to have served only to have endeared the piece all the more to concert audiences and in their grand effect ensured its evergreen status in the repertoire). It can be said, in fact, that, in the primary and secondary areas, thematic and tonal, of the first movement, the texture and musical material is relatively undifferentiated. This is one of the notable factors that makes for the solemnity and grandeur of this serious concerto. The transition back to the G-minor area, following the second subject, is gradual but purposeful, occurring initially by means of a harmonic descent in the bass. Truly the climax of this movement, after many piano passages cascading in octaves, is the quietly expressed but soulful and tragic piano writing in the ten-bar molto espressivo passage at the conclusion of the cadenza, which is exquisitely exaggerated by Earl Wild in his highly poetic and definitive 1967 RCA recording (with Massimo Freccia conducting). The movement concludes with final, extended reprises of the opening material.
The second movement, a vivacious Allegro scherzando in E flat major, shows Saint-Saëns’ predilection for the conventional juxtaposition of tonalities according to the interval of a third, that became common in Beethoven and Schubert, increasing tonal remoteness. E flat major bears this relation to G minor, and, conversely, there are references to G minor (though not extensive ones) within this movement. Surprisingly, perhaps, the movement represents Saint-Saëns’ most complete attempt, throughout the entire concerto, at regular sonata form, and its consequent ternary structure is a contrast to the binary tendency of the first movement (the latter movement having a greater large-scale sense of harmonic closure). It may be that Saint-Saëns reserved his greater adherence to formal models to this movement because the outer movements are weighted tonally and thematically towards a much higher, tragic poetic content and for them he wished to keep the use of freer and more flexible formal structures. Still, even apart from the burlesque second theme (in the dominant and tonic tonal areas respectively, within the sonata structure), the movement retains additional drama, particularly the chromaticism in the developmental transition from G to twelve bars before K, the piano writing remaining brisk and decorative. In this movement there is no drop in the quality of Saint-Saëns’ appealing melodicism, now being couched in a playfully coherent structure instead of the brooding majesty of the first movement.
The complex Presto finale (with a stretching metronome marking of minim = 120 in the autograph) is a stunning, collisive work and a pianistic tour de force. It begins with a vigorous dance in triplets, whose jaunty right-hand theme spans a wide registral compass. The triplet figuration is broken by a slightly archaic part-trillando phrase beginning at B and repeated at the octave below. This phrase occurs only intermittently until the sixth bar after D, and from then until twenty-one bars before E is subjected to an extended episodic development in which its reiteration against a chordal horn-call figure, the harmony moving from flatter to gradually sharper tonal areas, induces an arrestingly static quality from which we are never sure when recovery will take place back to the moto perpetuum of the main part of the movement (from the fifth bar after E). In dramatic and structural terms this episode is Saint-Saëns’ master stroke and there is a necessity and subtle rightness about it that goes beyond merely obeying the ‘law of good continuation’. In the remainder of the movement Saint-Saëns concedes (though not completely) a respectable sonata form, the music ending unrelievedly in G minor after some ponderous chords at G that seemed potentially to signal otherwise.
Kevin O’Regan, 2013
1 New Grove 2
For parts please contact Durand et Cie., Paris. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, Munich.