Violin Concerto No. 1 in A major, Op. 20
Although he lived to be horrified by the music of Debussy and Stravinsky (among many others), Saint-Saëns was regarded as a radical progressive in his younger years. He championed the music of the “new” German school – Schumann. Liszt, and Wagner – at a time when it was derided in France, and he formed a wide circle of industry friends and colleagues.
Among these was the great Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Saint-Saëns’ A-major Violin Concerto (actually his second, composed in 1859, the year after his C-major Concerto, which was published as No. 2 11 years after its younger sibling) was the first of a series of works that he wrote for Sarasate, who was already an internationally known virtuoso, though only 15 at the time.
This Concerto reveals several of Saint- Saëns' characteristic progressive traits, particularly the cyclic development of themes throughout a piece and inventive formal compression. It was usually regarded by his contemporaries as a work in a single movement, a typical concerto Allegro with a lyrical Andante inserted in the middle. But the closing section, though marked “reprise,” is not literally a repeat of the opening; it elaborates and reorders the themes. So, though all three sections are connected and related, they can easily be heard as the three movements standard for most 19th-century concertos, just in an original mashup.
The main Allegro material is bright and athletic in a confident, impulsive-butgraceful way. The Andante is soulful without angst or overbearing emotion – an elegantly spun instrumental song. The finale is dazzling in its recreation of the opening and its technical bravura, in a context of clever and vigorous continual development.