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A Tour de Force: Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 2

Camille Saint-Saëns

Photo by Nadar

French composer, organist, conductor, and pianist Camille Saint-Saëns (9 October 1835 – 16 December 1921), wrote five major works for the cello:

  • a suite with piano (rev. orchestra) (1866)
  • two sonatas (1872 and 1905)
  • two concertos (1872 and 1902)

A Collaboration with Cellist Joseph Hollman

Joseph Hollman

Dutch cellist Joseph Hollman (16 October 1852 – 31 December 1927)

Cello Concerto No. 2, Cello Sonata No. 2, and the revision of the early Suite (Op. 16), from the composer’s late period, are all fruits of his relationship with the Dutch virtuoso cellist Joseph Hollman (16 October 1852 – 31 December 1927).

Although we do not have a recording of Hollman performing the Concerto, you can hear him play “The Swan”:

Hollman gave the première of the Second Cello Concerto in Berlin on 4 February 1903, closely followed by performances in Paris on 5 and 12 February 1905 with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris under the direction of Georges-Eugène Marty (16 May 1860 – Paris, 11 October 1908).


Why Don’t We Hear Concerto No. 2 More Often?

First 2 lines of the cello part of the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 2

Looking at the notation in the above excerpt, perhaps the grand staff presented an obstacle for most cellists, deterring them from learning this beautiful work and allowing it to be overshadowed by the first Concerto.

Alternatively, maybe it was the composer’s claim that:

“the work’s level of difficulty is far too great for it to have the same amount of success as my First Cello Concerto.”

Whether performers’ reticence is due to the grand staff or the composer’s desire to challenge cellists with a more complex composition, my new edition of the Concerto is the first publication to remove the grand staff from the solo cello part, offering it on a conventional, single staff with standard clefs.

Since the work’s conception in 1902, it has gained a following by some prominent cellists, especially of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, notwithstanding the unconventional engraving by Durand.

A Tour de Force

The Second Cello Concerto is a tour de force, in the vein of concertos by Dvořák and Prokofiev. It is a cyclic work in two large movements, a composition style Saint-Saëns employed in several of his works, most notably the First Violin Sonata, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the “Organ Symphony.”

As in the works mentioned above, the Concerto movements are further divided into two parts: a four-movement layout of Allegro – Andante (Adagio) – Scherzo – Finale. The tonal scheme of the Concerto is identical to that of the First Violin Sonata: D minor – E-flat Major – G minor – D Major.

The Concerto opens with a fiery bolero rhythm, which permeates part I of the first movement. An organ-like woodwind transition leads into the more serene part II, based on the ascending line from the work’s opening theme. Both parts of the first movement have elements of sonata and ternary forms.

The first movement closes with an ascending scale in harmonics by the soloist (as in the First Concerto) and a peaceful horn call, whose melodic content is reminiscent of Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. The beauty of the Andante portion of this movement is only rivaled by the Adagio from the “Organ Symphony.”

The frantic opening of the second movement gives way to a relentless perpetual motion by the soloist. The woodwinds punctuate the solo line with a new version of the opening bolero figure. This Scherzo unfolds in sonata form, which is abruptly halted by a free cadenza based again on the bolero motive.

A trumpet fanfare announces a complete restatement of the two themes of the opening bolero, now in the major mode, and settling in the joyous Finale, based on an inverted Andante theme. The Finale, part II of the second movement, is similar to the brief A-Major coda found at the end of the First Cello Concerto.

The New Edition

The solo part is based on the holograph manuscript (in the hand of Saint-Saëns), the orchestra score published in Paris by Durand & Fils, January 1903 (Plate D. & F. 6190), and the solo part published by Durand in December 1902 (Plate D. & F. 6188).

The piano reduction is by the composer as published by Durand in December 1902 (Plate D. & F. 6188). Textual variants are noted in the footnotes.

Cello Concerto No. 2 Urtext Edition (modern clefs)

Other Cello Works by Saint-Saëns

Thank You

Special thank you to Michele Galvagno, Nora Karakousoglou, and Fanny Nemeth-Weiss for offering their expertise.

Your Turn

What is your favorite cello work by Saint-Saëns? Please tell us in the comments.