Camille Saint-Saëns’s prolific catalog includes a significant body of solo piano works, 5 piano concerti, and several concertante works featuring the piano. Several of these pieces foreshadow later developments by so-called impressionist composers, exhibiting harmonic ambiguities, use of modality, oblique tonal relationships, and textures idiomatic to musical impressionism. This paper will highlight specific proto-impressionistic elements in three works of Saint-Saëns: two of the composer’s piano études, and the 2nd movement of his Fifth Piano Concerto, Op. 103.
The Prélude from Saint-Saëns’s Étude in A Major, Op. 52, No. 5 (1877) features very difficult undulating parallel sixths within each hand. There are also passages of great harmonic ambiguity, including a lengthy series of unrelated major and minor triads, very audacious for its time, and unanalyzable via the tenets of functional harmony. Saint-Saēns’ Étude Op. 111, No 4 (Les Cloches de las Palmas)  expands these proto-impressionistic tendencies, including elements that do not appear in the literature until Ravel’s Jeux d’eau. Throughout, modality and tonal chromaticism intermingle, and bell-like textural effects anticipating Ravel’s La vallée des cloches (written five years later) are used to strong and striking effect.
The Fifth Piano Concerto (1896) includes many ingenious tonal as well as coloristic effects, including cadenza passages featuring “ghost overtones” (my label). Saint-Saëns’s role as a harmonic and textural innovator presaging and sometimes going beyond impressionist idioms is little explored and underappreciated in reception history, as these and other examples should manifest.