Camille Saint-Saëns composed his Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33 in 1872, when the composer was 37 years old. He wrote this work for the Belgian cellist, viola de gamba player and instrument maker Auguste Tolbecque. Tolbecque was part of a distinguished family of musicians closely associated with the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, France’s leading concert society. The concerto was first performed on January 19, 1873 at a conservatoire concert with Tolbecque as soloist. This was considered a mark of Saint-Saëns’ growing acceptance by the French musical establishment.
Sir Donald Francis Tovey later wrote “Here, for once, is a violoncello concerto in which the solo instrument displays every register without the slightest difficulty in penetrating the orchestra.” Many composers, including Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, considered this concerto to be the greatest of all cello concertos.
The work can be split into three different sections as follows:
- Allegro non troppo
- The concerto begins unusually. Instead of the traditional orchestral introduction, the piece begins with one short chord from the orchestra. The cello follows, stating the main motif. Soon, countermelodies flow from both the orchestra and soloist, at times the two playfully “calling and answering” each other.
- Allegretto con moto
- Tempo primo
- A restatement of the opening material from the first movement opens the finale. While Saint-Saëns uses the finale mainly as a recapitulation of earlier material, he concludes it with the introduction of an entirely new idea for the cello.
Saint-Saëns very often uses the solo cello here as a declamatory instrument. This keeps the soloist in the dramatic and musical foreground, the orchestra offering a shimmering backdrop. The music is tremendously demanding for soloists, especially in the fast third section. This difficulty has not stopped the concerto from becoming a favourite of the great virtuoso cellists.