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Composed: 1896

Orchestration: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, tam-tam, strings, and solo piano

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 6, 1975, Sidney Harth conducting, with Lorin Hollander, soloist

About this Piece

One can look upon the life of Camille Saint-Saëns with equal parts of admiration and awe. The man was astonishingly multi-dimensional: in addition to being a virtuoso pianist and prolific composer of works in all forms, he authored books on diverse subjects, he was a linguist, and an insatiable world traveler. It was, in fact, one of his journeys in Northern Africa, in 1896, that inspired the present concerto. 

Its exotic flourishes in the middle movement notwithstanding, the “Egyptian” Concerto is from the typical Saint-Saëns mold, which is to say it is melodious and straightforward and exudes the sophisticated charm and brilliance of a craftsman of the highest order. Fully understanding his own artistic identity, the composer put his credo in perspective when he wrote, “The artist who does not feel completely satisfied by elegant lines, by harmonious colors, and by a beautiful succession of chords does not understand the art of music.”  

As with several other of Saint-Saëns’ concertos, the very beginning of this one does not immediately reveal its virtuosic intentions. Rather, the first movement opens with an unprepossessing melody, which, however, soon gives way to characteristic jet-speed scales and arpeggios, and to a certain urgency. The opening of the Andante second movement, with its dramatic, Near East exoticism, tells us the reason for the concerto’s being dubbed “Egyptian.” And it is said that the lyric melody of this movement’s mid-section is an authentic Nubian song the composer heard on a boat crossing the Nile. For the final movement, he eschews foreign picturesqueness, and returns to his native brand of French glitter, songfulness, and keyboard pyrotechnics, all of which should leave an audience “completely satisfied.”

—Orrin Howard