The earliest of the three violin concertos is the C major which, though composed in 1858, was only published as No 2 in 1879. Marsick gave its successful first performance the following year at the Pasdeloup concerts in Paris. It’s not known for what occasion it was originally composed; Saint-Saëns already knew several notable violinists, among them the Belgian François Seghers, founder of the Société Sainte-Cécile, who had introduced him to Liszt, and George Bridgetower, the Afro-English violinist for whom Beethoven had written his ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata. By 1858 Saint-Saëns had already become a highly accomplished composer, with three symphonies, a mass, numerous songs, cantatas and instrumental works to his credit. As with all his subsequent concertos, there is no traditional extended orchestral introduction; instead, he follows the example of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in setting up an accompanimental figure over which the soloist enters with the main theme. In the classical manner, this is based around the notes of the C major chord but with a declamatory, extravagant character that immediately establishes the soloist as a romantic protagonist. The theme has a contrasting, more lyrical continuation, after which, again following Mendelssohn’s model, the orchestra takes up the opening melody in an extended tutti passage that also introduces two important subsidiary ideas. When the violin re-enters, the music moves to E major for the second subject. This turns out to be based on the lyrical continuation to the first theme. In a typically subtle piece of thematic organisation, Saint-Saëns refers, during the continuation of this melody, back to the concerto’s opening bars. Throughout the movement, indeed, he develops his ideas with remarkable resourcefulness, rarely repeating anything exactly. The cadenza arrives in the expected, conventional way, towards the end of the movement. Following Mendelssohn again, Saint-Saëns writes out his own cadenza and, in a most original touch, gradually re-introduces the full orchestra, beginning with the timpani, during its concluding passage, based on a long, sustained G.
For the A minor Andante, Saint-Saëns adds a harp and three trombones to the orchestra, the harp providing a bardic accompaniment to the violin’s melancholy melodies, the trombones together with bassoons adding a sombre, antique-sounding counterpoint to the opening motif. There’s a dramatic middle section in the major, culminating in a grandiose fanfare. During the latter part of the movement the woodwind voices emerge increasingly as alternatives to the violin. In the course of an extended coda, the music builds to a climax over a pedal bass, just as in the first movement’s cadenza, after which there’s an unexpected turn to a luminous A major before a return to the sombre mood and sound of the opening. Then the oboe, quite suddenly, takes us without a break into the lively rondo finale. Though this is more conventional music, the ever-inventive violin writing gives a sparkling impression, especially in the witty second episode where the hen from Le Carnaval des Animaux makes a premature entrance.
from notes by Duncan Druce © 1999