About this work
Published in 1875 in Paris, Saint-Saëns' Piano Concerto in E flat Major, Op. 29, is dedicated to pianist Elie-Myriam Delaborde. Although all five of Saint-Saëns' concertos, to some extent, follow Viennese models, the Third is arguably the most traditional in its formal procedures. (There were few French models of the piano concerto available at the time.) Other aspects of the piece, however, make it innovative, and the keyboard writing betrays Saint-Saëns' assimilation of Liszt's style.
Shortly after he had completed the Third Concerto, Saint-Saëns performed the piece in concert in Leipzig Gewandhaus, where it was poorly received. Strange as it may seem today, reviewers of the concert counted Saint-Saëns among the "progressive" composers of the time -- Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner -- whom they despised. One reviewer resented the concerto's "futuristic aftertaste," calling the piece "trite." In Paris, the piece faired no better, one critic calling it "comparable to everything incoherent and tormented in Liszt's late manner." Comments such as these are more likely a response to Saint-Saëns' publicly expressed approval of Liszt and Wagner than an evaluation of the Third Piano Concerto. Ten years would pass before the piece was well received, after which it disappeared from the repertoire, overshadowed by the popular Second Concerto.
Saint-Saëns once related that the opening of the concerto was suggested to him by the sound of a river. Rippling passages in the piano provide the background for orchestral announcements of the main theme at the beginning of the sonata-form first movement. It is possibly the most rigidly sectionalized of Saint-Saëns' concerto movements; even the development has clear divisions. The first of these develops themes in a lyrical fashion, with the piano taking the lead. After a flamboyant cadenza, the second part of the development begins, the orchestra continuing the musical argument. The closing passage, in which we hear a genuine conflict between the orchestra and soloist, was a new development in the French concerto.
The Andante begins with chromatic chords that outraged members of the audience at the Leipzig performance. Providing welcome contrast to the muscular outer movements, the Andante is a lovely, lyrical movement. The unusual opening harmonies lead to a hymn-like theme for the strings that is later shared with the woodwinds and piano. A contrasting theme appears in the lower register of both the piano and strings that continues the innovative harmonic progressions of the opening sections. When this theme returns near the end of the movement, elements of the impending Finale infect it, preparing for the plunge, without pause, into the third movement.
"Frothy" might best describe the Finale and its frivolous main theme. The pianist traverses nearly the entire keyboard during the rising melody, which dissolves into a transition that leads to a lyrical secondary theme. In an old-fashioned manner, Saint-Saëns repeats the entire exposition, but the rest of the movement is continuous development to the end, without a clear recapitulation. Brief sounds that evoke parrots and cockatoos are references to some of the birds kept by Delaborde, the concerto's dedicatee.
Curated by Femke Steketee, Saxophonist