Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, op. 28

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         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 leadership in encouraging French musical tradition.  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.         

         One of the salient characteristics of Romanticism as an intellectual movement was its fascination with the exotic--whether truly exotic, as in Asian and Near Eastern, or that deigned exotic (that is, anything not French or German).   And so, that accounts for the large number of compositions by late nineteenth and early twentieth century French composers that partake of Spanish musical elements.   In fact, there is at least a grain of musical truth in the old saw, “the best Spanish music was written by the French.”  Well, at least a lot of great Spanish-flavored music was written by the French, and Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso is a fine example.

          It was written in 1863 for the renowned violin virtuoso, Pablo de Sarasate, for whom Saint-Saëns also wrote two violin concertos.  Sarasate was born in the famous town of Pamplona, Spain, home of the “running of the bulls.”  Trained at the Paris Conservatory, he concertized all over the world during his career, and was the dedicatee of some of the century’s most distinguished compositions for violin.  Among them are not only Saint Saëns’ works, but also Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, and both Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and his Scottish Fantasy. Sarasate was the consummate salon virtuoso, possessed of a light tone, fast narrow vibrato, accurate intonation in the highest register, and fantastic technique.   And indeed, Saint-Saëns’ work was a perfect--and difficult--showpiece for these qualities.  The beginning is indicated melancholic in mood, and is followed by a brilliant cadenza.   The fast section that ensues is a dazzling scamper--appropriately in a Spanish style.  Saint-Saëns achieves the latter with rhythmic syncopations and chromatic melodic inflections that are redolent of Spanish folk music.   Especially interesting and ingratiating is the superimposition of two-four time in the soloist’s part and six-eight in the orchestral accompaniment.  The coda is a scintillating opportunity for the technical ability of the solo violinist, and never fails to please.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan