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ClassicsOnline Home » SAINT-SAENS, C.: Cello Concerto No. 1 / Allegro appassionato / HAYDN, J.: Cello Concerto No. 1 (J. Schwarz, Seattle Symphony, G. Schwarz)
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33
Allegro appassionato in B minor, Op. 43
Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns showed remarkable precocity as a child, first show in piano lessons from his great-aunt at the age of two and a half. He coupled with his musical interests a wide general enthusiasm for learning of all kinds, literary and scientific, and was, as a composer, to produce music of many genres during a career that spanned the second half of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, starting in a period that knew Mendelssohn and continuing beyond the death of Debussy.
Saint-Saëns was born in Paris in 1835, the son of a clerk in the government service, who died shortly after the birth of his only child. He was cared for by his mother and her adoptive aunt, whose husband had recently died. It was she who gave him his first piano lessons. Thereafter he studied with Camille Stamaty, a pupil of Kalkbrenner and of Mendelssohn, and appeared in public concerts as a child, having, by the age of ten, memorised all the Beethoven piano sonatas. At the same time he showed an aptitude for and interest in a great variety of subjects. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire, studying the organ with Benoist and composition with Halévy, and continuing to show his gifts as a pianist, organist and composer. His intellectual curiosity led him to espouse the cause of contemporary music, as well as the revival of music by earlier composers.
A member of the circle of Pauline Viardot, a valued friend, Saint-Saëns taught briefly at the newly established Ecole Niedermeyer, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré, a musician with whom he established a close relationship. In 1871, after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian war, he was instrumental in the foundation of the Société Nationale de Musique, with its aim of propagating French music, Ars Gallica. His great-aunt died in 1872 and three years later he contracted a marriage that came to an abrupt end six years later, after the earlier death of his two sons. The death of his mother in 1888 left him alone and he spent much of his later life travelling, accompanied by his dog and a loyal manservant. By the time of his own death in Algeria in 1921 he had to some extent outlived his reputation at home. In France this was the age now of Les Six. Debussy was dead, Fauré was near the end of his life, and Stravinsky had already, some eight years before, scandalized Paris with his Rite of Spring. Saint-Saëns continued to compose, although Ravel unkindly suggested that in war-time he might have been more productively employed. Abroad he retained something more of his earlier fame. Once known as the French Mendelssohn, he had written music that appealed to audiences in much the same way as his predecessor’s, for its clarity of texture and its attractive powers of invention, calculated to delight rather than to shock.
It was in 1872 that Saint-Saëns wrote the first of his two cello concertos. The Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33, has enjoyed much greater popularity than the demanding second concerto of 1902. The former was first performed by Auguste Tolbecque, to whom it was dedicated, in a concert at the Conservatoire. In a single movement, the concerto allows the soloist almost immediate entry, in the first bar, with the principal theme, marked by its triplet figuration, its final rising and falling semitone figure echoed in a lower register. A quieter second subject leads to a brief development, but the expected recapitulation leads, instead, to a minuet-like B flat major Allegretto con moto introduced by muted strings and including a cadenza for the soloist. An oboe reminiscence of the principal theme, taken up by the strings and the soloist, moves on, through the latter’s rising and falling semitone figure, to the counterpart of a slow movement, a passage marked Un peu moins vite. The soloist eventually leads the way to the return of the principal theme and a final Molto allegro.
Further evidence of the interest Saint-Saëns showed in the cello at this time is witnessed by his Allegro appassionato, Op. 43, for cello and piano, written in 1873 and orchestrated by the composer in 1876. The work in its original form had its première in February 1873 at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique with the cellist Jules-Bernard Laserre, to whom it was dedicated. The cello enters, after a short orchestral introduction, with the lively principal melody, followed by a D major secondary theme, which is to return, after a further hearing of the principal theme, in the key of C major. The main theme returns once more, now to lead to a coda.
Josef Haydn (1732–1809)
Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1
Born in 1732 in the village of Rohrau, near the modern border between Austria and Slovakia, Joseph Haydn was the son of a wheelwright. He had his musical training as a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and thereafter earned a living as best he could from teaching and playing the violin or keyboard. During these earlier years he was able to learn from the old composer Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn’s first regular employment came in 1759 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count von Morzin. This was followed in 1761 by appointment as Vice-Kapellmeister to one of the richest men in the Empire, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, succeeded on his death in 1762 by his brother Prince Nicolaus. On the death in 1766 of the elderly and somewhat obstructive Kapellmeister, Gregor Werner, Haydn succeeded to his position, remaining in the same employment, nominally at least, until his death in 1809.
Much of Haydn’s service of the Esterházys was at the new palace of Eszterháza on the Hungarian plains, a complex of buildings to rival Versailles in magnificence. Here he was responsible for the musical establishment and its activities, including regular instrumental concerts and music for the theatre, opera and church. For his patron he provided a variety of chamber music, in particular for the Prince’s favourite instrument, the baryton.
On the death of Prince Nicolaus in 1790 Haydn was able to accept an invitation from the violinist-impresario Salomon to visit London, where he already enjoyed a considerable reputation. He was in London for a second time in 1794 and 1795, after which he returned to duty with the Esterházy family, now chiefly at the family residence in Eisenstadt, where he had started his career. Much of the year, however, was passed in Vienna, where he spent his final years, dying as the city fell once more into the power of Napoleon’s army.
It was only in 1961 that Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1 was discovered, a companion for the well known Cello Concerto in D major, Hob.VIIb:2 of 1783, written for the Eszterháza cellist Anton Kraft. A third concerto exists, generally regarded as spurious, a fourth was concocted by the cellist David Popper and a fifth survives only as an entry in the 1773 catalogue of the publisher Breitkopf. The Concerto in C major survived in parts held in Raděnín Castle and is thought to have been written in about 1765, during Haydn’s first years with the Esterházy family in Eisenstadt, for the cellist of the musical establishment, Joseph Franz Weigl, to whose son, the future Court Vice-Kapellmeister, Haydn served as godfather. The discovery was a remarkable one, providing cellists with an unexpected and splendid addition to their repertoire.
The concerto, scored for pairs of oboes and horns, with strings, opens with a grandiose first movement, Its orchestral exposition is followed by the similarly vigorous dotted rhythms of the solo entry and writing that calls for technical virtuosity on the part of the cellist, combining the forthright with the lyrical, testimony to the skill of Joseph Weigl. The F major slow movement, during which the wind instruments are silent, provides a contrast, with the solo cello entering on a long sustained note, while the orchestra repeats the principal thematic material, a device found in the work of Haydn’s contemporary, Boccherini. The same form of solo entry is found again in the third movement, a movement in which Haydn explores the higher range of the solo instrument and introduces demanding and effective passage-work.
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