What a frustration it must be for those composers who live to see their music go out of fashion. Mahler famously said just before his death that “my time will come,” but for his contemporary Strauss, it was not easy being something of an anachronism in his later years. Even had Mahler lived another forty years, he might not yet have seen his music become fashionable. Saint-Saens had been one of the most famous and successful composers in the world at the height of his career, but by the time of his death in 1921 had come to be seen as an irrelevant relic of a bygone era.
His Cello Concerto no. 1 had been written at the height of his celebrity, and was instantly taken into the repertoire, and has remained a favourite with cellists and audiences ever since. By the time his Concerto no. 2 was premiered in 1902 his fame was beginning to change to infamy. With the rise of Debussy and Ravel and the emergence of a new harmonic vocabulary, Saint-Saens was quickly becoming known as a reactionary, desperately out of touch with the zeitgeist of the turn of the century. He was even one of the original rioters at the premiere of the Rite of Spring. This public perception was only furthered by an intense personal dislike between Saint-Saens and Debussy. Possibly as a result, the critical reaction was rather vicious, with one review saying of the concerto that it contained “de la mauvaise musique bien écrite,” or the worst music well written. Born into a hostile environment, the piece never really gained a foothold in the repertoire, even as the first concerto has remained popular.
Also contributing to the piece’s obscurity is a solo part that has scared off many cellists. The cello writing is so acrobatic that Saint-Saens wrote it on two staves throughout- he himself later described it simply as “too difficult.” The first movement is written in a Spanish style, full of bravura and vigorous dance rhythms. The second follows without pause and is a languid and songful movement, with some luxurious, even Wagnerian, harmonies. The Finale is a brisk virtuoso perpetual motion study which climaxes in a long cadenza and a return of the Spanish theme of the first movement. Finally, as in the First Concerto, Saint-Saens ends the concerto with a brand new, very lyrical theme.