The concerto is written in cyclic form in one continuous movement, but it has three main sections. Unlike other concertos, this one does not have an orchestral exposition before the entrance of the soloist. Instead, there is one loud chord from the orchestra, then the cello is heard. Throughout the first section, themes are heard in the orchestra, the soloist, sometimes played against each other, sometimes played with each other. The first section is in sonata form sort of, but a rather loose sonata form with very little development of the themes. The first section segues into the second section. The second section is short and in the tempo of a minuet that segues into the third section which recapitulates some of the themes from the first section and then introduces new material before the ending.
The Cello Concerto No. 1 is very technically demanding for the soloist. Saint-Saëns exploits the extreme ranges of the instrument but all the while keeps the balance between soloist and orchestra such that the cello can always be heard. It is a virtuoso work written by a virtuoso composer for a virtuoso cellist, and one of the few cello concertos that have managed to remain in the repertoire.