Critical Notes Series: Saint-Saens's Cello Concerto No. 2

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote five major works for the cello: a suite with piano (rev. orchestra), two sonatas, and two concertos. Cello Concerto No. 2, Cello Sonata No. 2, and the revision of the early Suite, Op. 16, coming from the composer’s late period, are all fruits of his relationship with the Dutch virtuoso cellist Joseph Hollman (1852-1927). 

The première of the Second Cello Concerto was given by Hollman in Berlin on 4 February 1903, followed by another performance 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 (1860-1908). 

Our edition of the Concerto is the first publication to remove the grand staff from the solo cello part and offer it on a conventional, single staff with standard clefs. 

Perhaps it was the grand staff that presented an obstacle for most cellists, deterring them from learning this beautiful work and thus allowing it to be overshadowed by the first concerto in the genre. Or maybe it was the composer’s own 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” 

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

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 abovementioned works, the Concerto movements are further divided into two parts, consisting of 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 opening theme of the work. Both parts of the first movement have elements of sonata and ternary forms. The 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 in nature to the brief A-major coda found at the end of the First Cello Concerto. 

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. 

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

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