In the last year of his life, at the age of 85, Camille Saint-Saëns was still active as a composer and conductor, traveling between Algiers and Paris. Besides a final piano album leaf, his last completed works were three sonatas, one each for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. He sensed that he did not have much time left; he wrote to a friend, "I am using my last energies to add to the repertoire for these otherwise neglected instruments." He intended to write sonatas for another three wind instruments, but was never able to. Saint-Saëns began the pieces early in the year while in Algeria and completed them in April in Paris. He was not alone in wanting to write for these instruments. English composers, such as Holst and Bax, and other French composers, such as Honegger and Milhaud, were also starting to expand the literature for woodwind instruments around the same time. In fact, Saint-Saëns' sonatas have pastoral and humorous moments that are similar to those others' works, relying on simpler melodies and textures than are found even his earlier chamber works, yet retaining Classical forms for their structure. Although all three sonatas were published before Saint-Saëns' death, they were not premiered until later.
The Sonata for oboe and piano, Op. 166, was the first of the three to be completed over the course of a couple of months in early 1921. As soon as he was finished, Saint-Saëns wrote to his publisher in Paris that he wanted to have them "tested" before they were edited for publication. The Oboe Sonata was played by his friend Louis Bas, who seemed so pleased with the work that Saint-Saëns dedicated it to him. The structure and lines of the sonata are not unlike what other French and neo-Classical composers were using around the same period and, in fact, the Oboe Sonata also has almost a preternatural resemblance to the works of the English pastoralists (Saint-Saëns was living in Algeria when he wrote it). The sonata opens with a gentle Andantino, followed by the bipartite second movement, an ad libitum recitative leading into an Allegretto gigue. The final Molto allegro is almost dance-like with shades of the energy of Saint-Saëns' more youthful works. All in all, the sonata is a standard work in the oboe repertoire, giving the performer a gratifying match between technical challenges and melodic expression.
Saint-Saëns' Oboe Sonata has three movements however, the movements are not ordered according to the traditional fast-slow-fast sonata system. The tempo of the movements increases successively.
The first movement, Andantino, is music of a pastoral kind, in ternary form ABA. The opening theme of the oboe solo is an echo of the Westminster chime.
The core of the second movement is a Romance, marked Allegretto. It is preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue.The introduction and epilogue are marked ad libitum - that is, the performer is free to choose the tempo they feel is most appropriate. At the end of the second movement there is an oboe cadenza, with sharp piano chords and expressive phrases.
The last movement, titled Molto Allegro, short and brilliant, has passages of great difficulty and virtuosity.