Movement 1: Allegro non troppo
Movement 2: Allegretto con moto –
Movement 3: Tempo primo
Yet a third factor in the work might well have been the incipient recovery of Paris after the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. In February 1871 the new Société Nationale de Musique, with Saint-Saëns as one of its founder members, had promoted its first concert under the banner ‘Ars gallica’, and the impetus was thereby given to young French composers to outdo the Germans in every way possible. It was partly pressure from the Société that pushed the staid Concerts du Conservatoire into accepting the premiere of Saint-Saëns’s first concerto on 19 January 1873, but more the request from the established cellist Auguste Tolbecque—without which, the conductor kindly informed the composer, the work would not have had a hope.
The first cello concerto has always been one of Saint-Saëns’s most popular pieces, Casals choosing it for his London debut in 1905. Tunes abound, but not in any disorderly way: the main themes of the outer movements move upwards, the second themes downwards; if, that is, the opening cello motif can be called a ‘theme’—the composer’s biographer Brian Rees refers to it as ‘an artefact rather than a melodious outburst’. The central minuet is a movement of pure delight and, in those uncertain times, no doubt reassured Parisian audiences that French culture had after all survived, one critic remarking that here the composer was making up for a recent ‘divergence from classicism’. The return of earlier material in the third movement may owe something to Saint-Saëns’s study of the cyclic patterns found in Liszt, to whom he remained indebted all his life.
from notes by Roger Nichols © 2014