The main melody of Saint-Saëns' fifth piano concerto.
The Piano Concerto No. 5 in F major, Op. 103, popularly known as The Egyptian, was Camille Saint-Saëns' last piano concerto. He wrote it in 1896, 20 years after his Fourth Piano Concerto, to play himself at his own Jubilee Concert on May 6 of that year. This concert celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his début at the Salle Pleyel in 1846.
This concerto is nicknamed "The Egyptian" for two reasons. Firstly, Saint-Saëns composed it in the temple town of Luxor while on one of his frequent winter vacations to Egypt, and secondly, the music is among his most exotic, displaying influences from Javanese and Spanish as well as Middle-eastern music. Saint-Saëns said that the piece represented a sea voyage.
Saint-Saëns himself was the soloist at the première, which was a popular and critical success.
The Allegro animato alternates several times between two contrasting themes. It begins warmly, introducing a simple subject on the piano, which is imbued at each new variation with increasing energy by a brilliant and technically challenging piano part featuring runs up and down the keyboard. This dissolves into a much slower and deeply melancholy subject, recalling that of the Andante sostenuto movement of Saint-Saëns' second piano concerto. Like waves, the two lead into one another until finally the second theme gives way to a gentle coda.
The Andante, traditionally the slow and expressive movement in concerto form, begins literally with a bang; the timpani punctuate an orchestral chord followed by an intensely rhythmic string part and an ascending and descending exotic run on the piano. This exciting introduction segues into the thematic exposition based on a Nubian love song that Saint-Saëns heard boatmen sing as he sailed on the Nile in a 'dahabiah' boat. Lush and exotic, this is the primary manifestation of the Egyptian sounds of the piece and probably the source of the nickname. Toward the end of the section, the piano and orchestra produce impressionistic sounds representing frogs and the chirping of Nile crickets.
The soloist begins the third Molto allegro with low rumbles suggesting the sounds of ships' propellers before exhibiting a vigorous and bustling first theme that rushes all over the piano. The piano continues in its dizzying motion as the woodwinds and strings bring in a driving new melody. The two combine and overlap, creating an active tension that Saint-Saëns uses to great dramatic effect, concluding the movement with a triumphant flourish. He later adapted these themes in 1899 for the Toccata that closes the Opus 111 series of piano études.