Saint-Saëns’ Egyptian Piano Concerto

Want to sabotage your self esteem?

Try comparing yourself to Camille Saint-Saëns. The renowned composer and teacher was also a virtuoso pianist and organist, as well as a travel writer, poet, and playwright. He had a photographic memory and spoke several languages fluently. He demonstrated perfect pitch at two years old and started composing at four. At ten he made his formal debut in Paris, performing works by Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. He wrote his first two symphonies during adolescence and continued to dazzle as an adult. At 72, he became the first major composer to score a film. By the time he died, at 86, he had completed more than 200 musical works, in virtually every genre, and was still getting gigs as a concert pianist. “I produce music the way an apple tree produces apples,” he famously declared. It ain’t bragging if it’s true, but it’s still highly irritating. Regular people struggle. Saint-Saëns, freakishly, did not.

When Saint-Saëns finished his fifth and final piano concerto, early in 1896, he was 60 years old. He needed a dazzling new showpiece for a celebration later that year marking the 50th anniversary of his debut as a performer (at 10—the jerk!). Although it had been 20 years since his last piano concerto—Saint-Saëns composed relatively little for the instrument, surprisingly—his apple-tree analogy remained apt. The work’s nickname, “Egyptian,” didn’t originate with Saint-Saëns, but it seems inevitable. He composed most of it while on vacation in Luxor, and, at least for him, it’s unusually programmatic. Explaining that the concerto represented a “sea voyage,” he provided many picturesque details to support his claim. But rather than strictly portraying a single country, the “Egyptian” compiles a world-traveler’s far-flung impressions. 

The opening Allegro animato subjects a simple melody to increasingly intricate formal procedures, with vaguely modal harmonies hinting at exotic destinations. Rippling piano textures and pulsing orchestration remind us that we travel by sea.

To quote the composer, the second movement “takes us… on a journey to the East and even, in the passage in F-sharp, to the Far East.” Here Saint-Saëns refers to the pentatonic melody picked out by the piano, a startling bit of proto-Minimalism that brings to mind a Javanese “Chopsticks.” With its hypnotic, chiming overtones and gamelan allure, it almost eclipses the main theme, which Saint-Saëns described as “a Nubian love song.” He claimed to have scribbled the tune on one of his sleeves after hearing it sung by boatmen on the Nile. As the Andante closes, Spanish-inflected dance rhythms subside in a nocturne of chirping crickets, croaking frogs.

The remarkably brief Allegro molto brims over with a madcap energy. Jazzy syncopation vies with sweeping bravura gestures. Coloristic effects describe everything from motorized propellers to restless trade winds. Saint-Saëns explained that the finale expresses “the joy of a sea crossing,” but this is clearly a hectic, queasy kind of joy. In fact, the notoriously tricky solo part was later used as an examination piece for aspiring pianists at the Paris Conservatory.

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Credit – René Spencer Saller

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