Camille Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1


Composed for cellist Auguste Tolbecque in 1872, Camille Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto is still regarded as one of the most successful of its kind. During a time where instruments such as the piano and violin were often centre stage at concerts, Tolbecque was promoting the cello through his work as an educator and virtuoso. The concerto was premiered in January 1873 in Paris, and the success from this work enhanced Saint-Saëns’ reputation for the rest of his life. 

The Music

Saint-Saëns broke some classical conventions with this concerto, with the main being the structure. Traditionally, a concerto is in three separate movements. Although there are three movements, Saint-Saëns structured the work in one long continuous movement. The three sections are interlinked through harmony and melody.

Movement I: Allegro non troppo

Instead of opening with a long orchestral introduction, Saint-Saëns opens the concerto with a stab chord from the orchestra, with the cello then taking over and proclaiming the opening theme. Based on intricate triplet movement, the soloist’s melodic lines are thrilling, enchanting and carefully woven into the fabric of the orchestra. 

Slowly introducing countermelodies and shifts in harmony, Saint-Saëns carefully sets up a dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra who end up playfully communicating in a call and answer set up. Although much of the material is shared with the orchestra, the drama and atmosphere created by the composer still keeps the cellist firmly centre stage. 

Movement II: Allegretto con moto

The rather brief second movement is a standard, but unique, minuet. Saint-Saëns biographer Stephen Studd comments on the composer’s use of the cello: “His feeling for the cello, with its deep, dark tone and capacity for both dignified and impassioned utterance, was now rekindled by the melancholy that set in after a family bereavement.” Motifs from this movement highlight the cello is varying lights, which corresponds with Studd’s above comments. 

This enchanting middle movement is further enhanced by the muted string accompaniment, whilst the sweet minuet sits on top. The cello plays in its upper register throughout, which creates that sense of yearning from the soloist. An impressive cadenza for the soloist is then played before the reminiscent finale movement takes hold. 

Movement III: Tempo primo

The fast and fiery finale section highlights Saint-Saëns’ flair for orchestration. With a restatement of the opening material from the first movement, the rest of the movement is largely used as a recapitulation of earlier movements. The cello reconsiders earlier themes through a highly virtuosic lens. Everything is now enhanced and twice as intense. The depths that Saint-Saëns goes to to create this movement is one of the many reasons why it has remained so popular today.

After tying up all these melodic loose ends throughout this movement, Saint-Saëns makes the ingenious choice to complete this iconic concerto with a ‘coda’ section of completely new musical ideas for the soloist. The pace quickens even more before the orchestra then steers the music from a mysterious A minor to A major, then the soloist takes over for a flourishing conclusion to this iconic concerto.


Final Thoughts

Saint-Saëns uses the cello as a strong declamatory instrument throughout. Always at the heart of this concerto, the cello goes through various trials and tribulations before flourishing into a brilliante finish. Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto has remained popular in the cello repertory, despite its difficulty level. It’s certainly a work for virtuosi performers, although the real beauty of this work comes from the raw passion from Saint-Saëns’ pen. 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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