Saint-Saëns: Organ Symphony

COMPOSER: Camille Saint-Saëns

BORN: October 9, 1835. Paris, France

DIED: December 16, 1921. Algiers, Algeria


WORLD PREMIERE: May 19, 1886. London, England

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbal, bass drum, piano, organ, and strings.

ABOUT THE COMPOSER: Camille Saint-Saëns was an organist, musical critic, and composer, who played a critical role in building and promoting French musical identity in the last quarter of the 19th century. As a child prodigy, Saint-Saëns was known for being able to perform all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas from memory. He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1848, first to study organ performance and then composition under Halévy.

WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: At the end of the nineteenth century, French music underwent a revolution; attempting to redefine a unique French aesthetic distinct from that of Germany, many composers, like Saint-Saëns, looked to the symphonic procedures of Berlioz and Liszt—in particular, cyclic and thematic transformation—for their point of departure.

Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony is in two parts, but might better be understood as four movements, wherein the “first- movement” Allegro and “second-movement” Adagio are performed without break, as are the “third movement” Scherzo and “fourth-movement” Presto-Finale. The expanded orchestration is the work’s most notable feature (and the reason for its moniker). Not only does Saint-Saëns include an organ, but also piano for four hands, and a large percussion section. As he stated, “The time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation.”

The Adagio, introduced quietly by the organ, presents a tender melody, beautifully contrasting the main theme of the first movement. After first appearing in the strings, the melody is exquisitely re-orchestrated for clarinets, horns, and trombones. After a more active, however, the Dies irae creeps in, pizzicato in the bass with portentous interjections in the flute, clarinet, English horn, and bassoon. Yet, the potential of the Dies irae to disturb the expressive calm of the movement is mitigated by the organ. Gradually, the pizzicato is transformed into a crystalline, starry accompaniment over which main lyrical theme, reintroduced by the strings, is delicately suspended.

The Scherzo, rhythmically energized by compound meter, “brings back vague feelings of unrest, augmented by dissonant harmonies.” In a brilliant flourish, the piano enters, answered by tremolo strings, triangle and cymbals, and hints of the Dies irae in the strings and woodwinds. According to musicologist Richard Taruskin, the performative virtuosity of the piano writing in this movement might be interpreted as an homage to Liszt’s earlier career as a piano virtuoso, while the more “churchy sounding organ” in the subsequent movement alludes to Liszt’s later career as a Catholic acolyte.

The Presto, reflecting Saint-Saëns’ “eclectic spirit,” is a kaleidoscope of fugato, pastorale, and chorale textures and styles. After a lively contrapuntal section, the organ is finally given full reign, bursting forth in a brilliant C major over a glittering four-hand piano accompaniment. A string chorale, timpani, cymbal crashes, and brass pageantry bring the symphony to a dazzling close.