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Severance Hall
December 5 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. 

December 6 – Friday at 11:00 a.m.* 
December 6 – Friday at 8:00 p.m. 
December 7 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 

Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”) in F major, Opus 103

Camille Saint-Saëns  (1835-1921)
composed 1896

At a Glance
Saint-Saëns wrote his Fifth Piano Concerto in Egypt in the spring of 1896.  The premiere took place on June 2, 1896, in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, with the composer at the piano and Paul Taffanel conducting.  (The occasion was a concert marking the 50th anniversary of Saint-Saëns’s debut as a pianist at the age of 10 in 1846.)

This concerto runs about 30 minutes in performance.  Saint-Saëns scored it for an orchestra of 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (tam-tam), and strings, plus the solo piano.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Saint-Saëns’s “Egyptian” Piano Concerto in November 1922.  It has been programmed a few times since then, most recently in February 2017, when Cédric Tiberghien played it on a weekend of concerts conducted by Matthias Pintscher.

About the Music
If Saint-Saëns had devoted his professional career to being a concert pianist, he would have been as famous and as acclaimed as Anton Rubinstein, Leschetizky, or Paderewski, or any other lion of the age.  His five piano concertos, all of which he played himself, provide scintillating evidence of his astonishing technique both in weight and nimbleness.  He played across Europe, and championed works by a range of composers, from Mozart and Beethoven to Liszt. 

Yet playing the piano was only one of many activities, not all of them concerned with music, that consumed Saint-Saëns over a very long life.  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 (but fun-filled and deftly written) Carnival of the Animals.

His first four piano concertos appeared at steady intervals between 1858 and 1875.  The Second, which he composed in seventeen days, has remained his most popular concerto (he also created concertos for cello and violin).   After the age of forty, Saint-Saëns spent more and more time vacationing — and writing — in North Africa, which yielded the Suite algérienne for orchestra in 1880, and two works for piano and orchestra:  a colorful one-movement piece re-titled Africa in 1891 and the Fifth Piano Concerto in 1896.  Like the famous Bacchanale Scene at the end of his opera Samson and Delilah, all of these works contain musical allusions to Moorish music in one form or another, although, except in the case of Africa, Saint-Saëns was too much a classicist ever to allow such elements to be more than glancing evocations of distant places.  (These touches of “exotic” music act, perhaps, like the sounds of splattering rain in a movie scene, establishing the weather and then fading off except for occasional reminders; the scene is not “about” the rain.  These Saint-Saëns works are not “about” North Africa, but merely tinged with aural incense by having been written there.)

In January 1896, Saint-Saëns went to Milan for the Italian première of his opera Henry VIII, and from there traveled on to Cairo for his customary winter vacation.  He ventured up the Nile into Upper Egypt and then came back down river to settle into a Cairo hotel to write the Fifth Piano Concerto.  As usual, the music flowed from his pen, and it took just over three weeks to complete.  His first ideas for the work had been noted down on a previous holiday two years before, when he went to the Canary Islands, but the main work was completed in Cairo in time to include the new concerto in a momentous concert at Paris’s Salle Pleyel, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s first appearance there in 1846 at the age of ten. This anniversary took place on June 2, 1896, with the great violinist Sarasate, a close friend, sharing the bill. 

The concerto was published the same year with a dedication to Louis Diémer, a fine pianist who played it many times.  Saint-Saëns continued to play it regularly in public, even past his eightieth birthday. 

The Music
There is nothing Egyptian about the concerto, except for some specific touches in the second movement.  The outer movements are perfectly European and, one might say, classical in their balance of themes and tempos.  The opening theme in the first movement has an affinity with plainchant, like many of Saint-Saëns’s tunes, and the second main tune recalls Brahms in its broad sweep.  The finale third movement is a brilliant tour-de-force that actually exhibits little force.  Rather, its magic lies in fleetness and ingenuity, and it keeps the soloist scampering from one end of the keyboard to the other.

The most remarkable music is to be found in the middle movement, which is unlike anything else by Saint-Saëns.  It is not simply that most of the themes have a Middle-Eastern character, based on modal intervals; it also proceeds strangely from one episode to another without any apparent direction, like an improvisation, although the balance of the movement is cleverly controlled and seemingly well-proportioned.  The one theme that is said to have a Nubian origin, related to something the composer heard in local music — perhaps by Nile boatmen singing — of modern Upper Egypt (today’s southern Egypt stretching into Sudan).  But the tune, in fact, sounds more northern, and has no arabic intervals at all.  Two curious passages stand out.  In one, the left hand plays a series of notes that are colored by the right hand with soft chords that give it the sound of an organ mixture stop, a device later used by Ravel in Boléro.  The other is a strange chirruping in the distant key of F-sharp major, beneath which a Chinese-influenced melody is heard against soft blows on the tam-tam.  Was Saint-Saëns recalling other journeys to distant parts, or just being playful?  

—Hugh Macdonald © 2019

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