Violin Concerto No. 3 in B Minor, op. 61

          Camille Saint-Saëns lived a long life, and was remarkable for his wide-ranging intellectual interests and abilities.  As a child he was, of course, a precocious musical talent, but even then, he evinced a strong natural interest in almost every academic subject--including, but certainly not restricted to, astronomy, archaeology, mathematics, religion, Latin, and Greek.  In addition to a life of musical composition and virtuoso keyboard performance, he also enjoyed success as a music journalist, champion of early music (Handel and Bach), and as a leader in encouraging French musical traditions.  His father died when he was an infant, and he grew into middle age extraordinarily devoted to his mother--his marriage at the age of forty to a nineteen-year old did not last long.  He simply left the house one day in 1881 and chose never to see her again; she died in 1950 at the age of ninety-five.    Saint-Saëns went on to live an active life, filling an important rôle in the musical life of France--as performer, composer, author, spokesman, and scholar.  He was peripatetic--researching Handel manuscripts in London, conducting concerts in Chicago and Philadelphia, visiting Uruguay and writing a hymn for their national holiday, and vacationing in the Canary Islands.  He celebrated seventy-five years of concertizing in August of 1921 in his eighty-sixth year, and died a few months later.

            Perhaps his most well-known and successful work is his opera, Samson et Dalila, one of a dozen.  However, other works vie for that honor, for he was a most prolific composer, working in almost every genre common at that time.  Despite this versatility he perhaps did his best work in the traditional Classical models--symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and sonatas.   The concert-going public today may subconsciously think of French music as being defined by the innovations of the completely new directions in which Debussy and Ravel took Gallic musical style.  But Saint-Saëns, a dominant figure in French musical life in the generation before them, was securely positioned in the Classical traditions from the century before.   His work in those models bears that out, and that is clear in his concertos for solo instrument and orchestra.  He wrote well over two dozen of them, including three for violin and orchestra.  Of these, Concerto No. 3 has remained a concerto favorite, along with the evergreen Introduction et rondo capriccioso and the Havanaise, also for solo violin.

            The first two concertos were relatively early works, but the third was written in 1880, when he was forty-four, at the top of his game, and during the period of his most successful works: Samson et Dalila, the “Organ” Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the “Carnival of the Animals,” and others.  It is dedicated to the great virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, soloist at the work’s première.

            While cast in the three traditional movements, with the usual forms, the concerto doesn’t hew dogmatically to convention. Saint-Saëns eschews the traditional orchestral introduction, with the soloist entering emphatically after just a few bars of tremolo in the orchestra.  In the best Classical fashion, the main theme is composed of just four bold strokes, and it will be easy to track them in the rest of the movement.  The solo part is replete with the expected virtuosic figurations, double stops, and the like, but after an orchestral transition, a lyrical second theme in E major ensues.  The development continues the happy mood for a while, but the dark, emphatic first theme is soon fodder for a working out.  The end of the movement is signaled by a return to the opening material, with busy virtuoso figures heralding the end.  Another surprise awaits, for the composer also eliminates the conventional cadenza for the soloist, obviously because the exciting and challenging material in the solo part has pretty much taken care of the need for further technical display in this abbreviated recapitulation.

            The gentle, lyrical second movement is a simple dance in the familiar siciliana rhythm.  Various solo woodwinds gracefully fill in and out around the solo violin, with the strings providing a lush, undulating foundation.   Just as in the first movement, where the incisive main motif provided Saint-Saëns with all the needed melodic material to build the movement, all in the Classical tradition—so in this charming middle movement are the tunes and phrases foursquare, and thus Classical, as well.   Pay particular attention to the very end, where one will enjoy the truly unique sound of ethereal harmonics in the solo violin doubled octaves lower by the solo clarinet. Saint-Saëns without doubt could orchestrate!

            In another unusual move, Saint-Saëns begins the last movement, not with an orchestra tutti setting the stage for the entrance of the soloist, but with the soloist playing what for all the world sounds like a dramatic operatic recitative for solo violin!   After a series of impressive flourishes, the soloist jumps into the march-like theme in B minor---a jagged affair whose second part is a smooth ascending stepwise passage.  Both aspects will be heard throughout.  The second main idea, cheerfully melodic, and now in D major, closes out the first part.  The development is distinguished—after the orchestra alone briefly tackles the main theme--by the introduction of a completely new theme in G major.  The full string section sets a lush introduction to this chorale-like theme, followed by the soloist.  After figural activity, the main theme from the beginning returns and heralds the recapitulation, which begins with a somewhat brief reëxamination of the main material.   But the big, and pleasant surprise is a glorious, uplifting chorale played by the brass—supported by energetic strings--of the winsome new theme from the middle of the movement.   The soloist takes it up, and spirited figurations lead the inevitable rush to the conclusion of this most satisfying work.  Proving that, despite the innovative blandishments of the next French generation of composers—Debussy and Ravel--Saint-Saëns knew full well how to extract yet more new wine out of the Classical tradition and put it in old bottles.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan