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The Piano Concertos of Camille Saint Saens

Updated on February 8, 2015

Saint Saens' 5 Piano Concertos

Below each concerto’s review, you’ll find a youtube link and video for your listening and viewing pleasure (except Concertos No. 1 and No. 3, because there was no youtube video available....)

Great German, Italian and French classical music composers are a dime a dozen. So how does the music of Saint Saens measures up to the bunch?

Camille Saint Saens 1835-1921, was one of the most successful classical composers (Late Romantic actually) that has ever lived. He was a great pianist and organist, as well as an excellent music professor (taught at the Paris Conservatory - also wrote books on composition).

Proust, In his great novel "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” (Remembrance of Things Past), parodies Saint Saens via his fictional character ‘Vinteuil’ - a composer with some potential, but who will never reach the greatness of a Beethoven or Chopin. Proust examines talent, luck, and education, three facets of art which are not always synonymous with one another i.e., an individual may be very educated, yet have little talent, or be talented and not get a break, etc. The sonata which Vinteuil has composed in Proust’s novel, has much in common with the music of Saint Saens; Proust enjoyed Saint Saens’ music in his youth (- Proust was introduced to Saint Saens’ music by his first homosexual lover, who played the piano for him at times), but later on criticizes Saint Saens as a composer for not being very original, or remaining true to his art. However, Proust did think very highly of Saint Saens' skills as a pianist and did say he was one of Europe’s greatest pianists since Liszt!

Saint Saens’ life may at times seem like something out of low budget ‘child genius’ sci-fi film. He accompanied a violinist on the piano at age 5, mastered Latin at age 7, and gave his first piano recital at age 10. He study music at the Paris Conservatory; he taught composition at the Paris Conservatory. Saint Saens also wrote many books about the art of musical composition. He also had exceptional knowledge of science, mathematics, literature and philosophy. Saint Saens also wrote plays in his youth....

Saint Saens, like Beethoven before him, wrote 5 piano concertos, which he frequently performed throughout his long life. And, just like Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt and a few other composers, Saint Saens was a very gifted pianist who'd performed his piano concertos in public.

Today, most intellectuals and historians tend to side with Proust and a few other people’s appraisal of Saint Saens’ music. Most will agree that he had talent, but his music is not as intellectual, refined, or as emotionally charged up as the music of his contemporaries was - most music experts he wasn't as profound as Faure, Franck, or even Gounod; G. B Shaw said had Saint Saens given back what he stole from Bach, Meyerbeer and Gounod, he'd have little to work with (paraphrasing Shaw...).

Saint Saens' Piano Concerto No. 1

His first attempt at writing a piano concerto. The concerto was written relatively late, especially when you take into account how prodigious he had been in his youth.... Nevertheless, in the tradition of his icon Liszt, the work is virtuosic and typically romantic in nature....

Saint Saens' Piano Concerto No. 2

Not only Saint Saens’ most famous piano concerto, but one of his most famous compositions. For being the commercially and money geared individual Saint Saens was, this piano concerto was not the hit one would have expected to be when it first premiered in 1868. History has it that Saint Saens composed it in a short period of three weeks. The work is in three movements. The second movement is a scherzo - real scherzo - silly and capricious - unlike Chopin’s dramatic compositions for piano solo....

Saint Saens' Piano Concerto No. 3

The least French of his concertos in style. It has been said that Saint Saens was trying to impress the Germans with this piano concerto. All said..., just like his first piano concerto, this one has never really taken off with the public....

Saint Saens' Piano Concerto No. 4

One of the most beautiful and original compositions Saint Saens ever wrote. The work is influenced by Saint Saens’ personal icon, Liszt. It uses Liszt’s cyclical system of writing, that is to say, the last movement’s main theme, is based on material from the concerto’s first movement. Some have said that the work’s main theme is actually a reworking of a French style Protestant chorale....

Saint Saens' Piano Concerto No. 5

Is Saint Saens’ most famous piano concerto after the No. 2. Towards his later years, Saint Saens had a habit of spending his summers in Paris, and winters in Egypt. The concerto was inspired by a visit he made to a temple in the town of Luxor, Egypt, which Saint Saens frequently visited. The work is in three movements, and has been a hit since it premiered in 1896.

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