In the spring of 1868, conductor and pianist Anton Rubenstein asked Camille Saint-Saëns to arrange a concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, with Saint-Saëns as piano soloist and Rubenstein conducting. Upon discovering that the hall was booked for three weeks, Saint-Saëns proposed that he spend the time writing a new piano concerto that he could premiere, along with a performance of his first piano concerto (1858) and his Tarantelle (1857). Saint-Saëns knocked off the work in about two weeks, but that was barely enough time to rehearse, and the piece suffered from the lack of polish at the May 8 premiere. The audience was not very receptive, and pianist Zygmunt Stojowski famously joked that its musical styles were all over the map: “it begins with Bach and ends with Offenbach.”
Franz Liszt, however, to whom Saint-Saëns sent a copy of the score, knew a crowd-pleaser when he saw one. He wrote:
“I want to thank you again for your Second Concerto, which I greatly applaud. … you take into just account the role of the pianist without sacrificing anything of the ideas of the composer, which is an essential rule in this class of work… The totality of the work pleases me singularly. It ought to meet with success in every country.”
And indeed, the concerto soon began pleasing both soloists and audiences, who admired its dash, flair, and musical showmanship.
The concerto breaks from the ordinary by placing the ‘slow’ movement in first rather than second position. The Andante sostenuto begins with a Bach-like improvisation (hence Stojowksi’s quip) that soon segues to dramatic arpeggios–typical for Saint-Saëns, who began his career as a child keyboard prodigy. The main theme was based on a Tantum ergo motet that Gabriel Fauré had shown to his teacher Saint-Saëns, who is said to have exclaimed, “Give this to me. I can make something of it!” And so he did, pairing the melancholy tune with a second motif of his own, embellished in thirds. The movement closes with a huge cadenza for the soloist, and the reprise of the Bach motif.
From the G minor of the opening we move to E-flat major in the Allegro scherzando. Marked leggieramente, “light and brisk,” the movement is a witty conversation in 6/8 between the soloist and orchestra, with flashes of the same humor we know so well from the composer’s later Carnival of the Animals (1886).
The finale, Presto, returns to G minor in a tarantella, the fast and furious Italian form well-loved by the Romantic composers. The piano soloist exchanges rapid-fire dialog with the full orchestra, in what one current critic has described as “chase-me-Charlie up and down the keyboard.” The 2/2 rondo ends with a brilliant coda that Liszt no doubt recognized–being something of a ham himself–as a chance for the soloist to pull out all the stops and “bring ’em home.”