Camille Saint-Saens (1835 – 1921)  

Born in 1835 in Paris, Camille Saint-Saens is the most renowned French composer of the 19th century. His violin compositions are standards of the virtuoso repertoire. His most famous works for the instrument—Havanaise, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and the Third Concerto in B minor—were each instant successes, featuring saucy Iberian themes, virtuosic tricks, and powerful climaxes. The Concerto is also popular as a debut vehicle, and such artists as Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, and Pinchas Zukerman all made Cleveland Orchestra debuts with the piece.                                                                        

Dedicated to the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, the B minor Concerto has elements of French, Spanish, and Italian motives. The first movement, representing an easygoing, Parisian feel, quickly became popular with the audiences due to its “poetic atmosphere and compelling melodiousness” (George Bernard Shaw). The movement is in A-B-A-B-A form, with sentimental phrases sandwiched between pyrotechnical exploits. The original opening melody, played for the first thirty bars on the violin’s lowest string, the G-string, returns to launch the coda, driven by an ever increasing crescendo and tempo, utilizing every position on the instrument.

The second movement, based off of a simple Siciliano melody, is very much chamber music between the solo violin and principal winds, as the phrase is handed back and forth between the oboe, flute, clarinet, and violin. The rhythmic pulse is leisurely, the mood is always uplifting, and the soaring melodies demonstrate the vocal qualities of the instrument. The violin concludes the movement with arpeggios in artificial harmonics.

The third movement begins with a rhapsodic, cadenza feeling, leading to a sensuous, energetic Spanish theme that is reminiscent of the dedicatee’s (de Sarasate) own music. The movement is fast-paced until the orchestral violins introduce the secondary melody, which is the only lapse in the spirited pulse. The tension and virtuosity increase until the coda, marked Presto. The movement finishes with a dynamic flourish, bringing the concerto to a heroic ending.

Pablo de Sarasate premiered the concerto in 1881, and the concerto was published the following year. I first learned this concerto when I was 14 in Vermont, and again in the summer of 2003. It has always been one of my favorites due to it’s accessibility and rich themes. The concerto shows off many palettes of the instrument, and is ultimately a rewarding piece.
I would like to dedicate this performance to twelve years of inspiring guidance and friendship from Ms. Liza Grossman.

~Andrew Sords March, 2004

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