Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto 5 in F, Opus 103 “Egyptian”

As a preparation for the upcoming performance of the piece by the Houston Symphony, the following is a collection of thoughts around the always fascinating composer and his last masterwork in the genre.

Saint-SaensThe Composer

Camille Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, on October 9, 1835
and died in Algiers on December 16, 1921.

He composed his Piano Concerto No. 5 in Cairo, Egypt,
in March and April 1896

He was soloist in the first performance of the piece on June 2 that same year in the Salle Pleyel, Paris, with Paul Taffanel conducting the orchestra of the Société des Concerts, marking the fiftieth anniversary, or jubilee, of his first appearance there in 1846 at the age of ten

Accomplished pianist: His piano concertos, all of which he played himself, provide scintillating evidence of his astonishing technique both in weight and nimbleness.

Prolific creator: No genre of music was untouched —operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs, choral music, all in abundance; even a film score, one of the first ever composed.

Multi-faceted:

  • organist at the Madeleine church in Paris
  • conducted frequently
  • wrote articles for the press
  • published half a dozen books
  • wrote poetry and plays
  • took a close interest in astronomy, archaeology, philosophy, and classical literature
  • spoke several languages

 

Artistic Views

“The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music.”

An innovator, Saint-Saens was no less a formalist, who anticipated and influenced the neoclassicism of the early twentieth century.

Nile River

His travels

For pleasure and as pianist: Brazil, Ceylon,Algiers, Scandinavia, Russia, Indochina, and Uruguay. As a conductor: he worked in Moscow, London, and the United States.
After the age of forty he spent more and more time vacationing in North Africa

  • the outcome of which was the Suite algérienne for orchestra in 1880
  • a colorful work for piano and orchestra simply entitled Africa in 1891
  • Fifth Piano Concerto in 1896 (in a Villa in Cairo, Egypt)

 

scoreThe piece

There is nothing Egyptian about the concerto except in the second movement.

  • And it is said that the lyric melody of this movement’s mid-section is an authentic Nubian song the composer heard on a boat crossing the Nile.

The outer movements are perfectly European and classically balanced themes and tempos.

  • The opening theme in the first movement has an affinity with plainchant, like many of Saint-Saëns’s tunes, and the second main tune recalls Brahms in its broad sweep.
  • The finale is a brilliant tour de force, but more brilliance than actual force, remarkable for its fleetness and ingenuity: it keeps the soloist scampering from one end of the keyboard to the other.

Reasons for the nickname:

  • Saint-Saëns composed it in the temple town of Luxor while on one of his frequent winter vacations to Egypt
  • The music is among his most exotic, displaying influences from Javanese and Spanish as well as Middle-eastern music. Saint-Saëns said that the piece represented a sea voyage.

The piano part of the finale is so formidable that it was later used as an examination piece at the Paris Conservatoire.

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