About this work
Saint-Saëns composed his Fifth Piano Concerto while in Egypt in the winter of 1895-1896. It was published in 1896 with a dedication to pianist Louis Diémer (1843-1919), who played the piece on several occasions. It is one of the composer's "exotic" works, in which he uses the minor mode with raised sixth and seventh degrees (often called the "melodic" minor). This is the earliest concerto by a French composer to incorporate such "exoticisms," effects that had hitherto been reserved for shorter works and suites. Saint-Saëns' Africa, Op. 89 (1891), and Suite algérienne, Op. 60 (1880), also employ modal inflections to produce local color.
In this grandiose work, Saint-Saëns' references to his time in Egypt include the imitation of croaking of frogs he heard in the Nile, a "Nubian love song," and the turning of a ship's propellers in the Finale. The composer wrote that the second part of the concerto, "in effect, takes us on a journey to the East and even, in the F sharp passage, to the Far East." These effects, plus the place of the concerto's origin, prompted the nickname, "Egyptian," which was not given by the composer. It is the most blatantly pictorial of Saint-Saëns' concertos.
At the first performance of the Fifth Concerto, critics hailed it as "a work of fantasy ornamented and colored like one of the prettiest buildings of the Alhambra...." Both the composition of the Fifth Concerto and its positive reception were rejuvenating experiences for the composer, who had by this time been in the public eye for 60 years. To the orchestration of the earlier Fourth Concerto Saint-Saëns adds two horns, piccolo, and a gong, which slips in surreptitiously as the piano plays a modal, "oriental" passage.
The first movement seems at first to be in sonata form, but eventually reveals itself to be a much freer structure. Most impressive are the broken chords at the beginning, which rhythmically disguise a chorale.
The lightness and transparency of the second movement are often said to reflect the composer's happiness at being in the East. Fantasy-like in organization, the music takes an unpredictable path through transparent orchestration.
Saint-Saëns noted that the Finale describes "the joy of a sea crossing," which accounts for the imitation of propellers at the end. The first theme is similar to ragtime piano music in its lively, dancing rhythms. The secondary theme at first continues this ebullience, but later moves to a more lyrical, contrasting idea. Saint-Saëns evokes the "exotic" through unusual orchestration, particularly in the combination of horns and piano, which represents water through harp-like rippling figures. While the strings reiterate a C sharp, the piano plays rapid figures which Saint-Saëns once said represented croaking frogs, while tremolos in the strings at the end of the movement refer to a similar effect in Egyptian singing. The piano part of the finale is so formidable that it was later used as an examination piece at the Paris Conservatoire.