Listening to Saint-Saens 'Organ' Symphony

Camille Saint-SaŽns completed his Third Symphony in 1886. He was fifty-one at the time, and enjoying what was perhaps the time when his compositional powers were at their height. The symphony is striking for many reasons, but for one reason above all others: its dramatic use of the organ. For that reason itís also commonly known as the ďOrgan SymphonyĒ, even though the organ appears in only two of its four movements.

Saint-SaŽns worked extremely hard on the piece, to the extent that he was able to claim that he had "given everything to it I was able to give." Like Beethovenís Ninth Symphony, it was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society. When it was published the symphony was dedicated to Franz Liszt, Saint-SaŽnsí close friend and ally who was to die just ten weeks after the workís first performance, which was given in St Jamesí Hall, London, under the composerís own direction on 19 May 1886. Liszt had admired the score in its unfinished state, but was unable to attend the premiere and so never heard the piece. Saint-SaŽns also presided at the workís French premiere the following January. Besides using the organ, the work also has a prominent role for the piano, played by both two and four hands.

Formally itís a more adventurous piece than one might perhaps think. Saint-SaŽns explores the principles of whatís known as cyclic form, in which a signature theme Ė a rising four-note motif - recurs in adapted form throughout the piece, so that a common element links every movement. This was a ploy which had its roots in Lisztís own dazzlingly experimental symphonic poems. Itís probably no coincidence, furthermore, that in his symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht of 1857 Liszt also wrote a prominent part for organ.

Somewhat unusually for its time, the symphony was conceived in two parts, although Saint-SaŽns himself stressed that it nevertheless followed a traditional classical four-movement design. It begins with the time-honoured slow introduction in which we hear the rising four-note motif for the first time. Soon after the main Allegro section begins the motif undergoes transformation. Thereís a more lyrical tune which combines with the motif, preparing us for the slow movement section of this part of the work. This is a lovely dialogue between organ Ė which makes its first entry in this movement - and strings in D flat major, an unusually bold key for a piece in C minor. Itís interrupted, however, by fast music, with which it eventually coexists.

  Listen to the opening of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

  Listen to the 'lyrical tune' in the first movement of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

  Listen to the opening of the second movement of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

  Listen to the 'faster music' in the second movement of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

The second part is fast, stormy, dramatic, diabolical. Here Saint-SaŽns introduces brilliant passage work on the piano. More solemn things are heard, played by trombone, tuba, and basses, and the two musics struggle for supremacy. Eventually solemnity triumphs, and the organ enters majestically, heralding the complex finale, the symphonyís most famous movement which includes, as well as powerful organ outbursts, brass fanfares, lots of complicated counterpoint, a short pastoral passage, a dramatic parody of the plainchant sung to the words Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) in the Catholic Requiem Mass, and a tremendously thrilling climax.

  Listen to the opening of the third movement of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

  Listen to the second theme in the third movement of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

  Listen to the opening of the fourth movement of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

  Listen to an extract of the fugue in the fourth movement of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

  Listen to the ending of Saint-SaŽns's 'Organ Symphony'

After the first performance of the work, Charles Gounod apparently said ďThere goes the French Beethoven!Ē. Such a remark tells us something of Saint-Saensí status at the time. He himself had a far more modest view of his own worth, describing himself as ďFirst among composers of the second rank.Ē After listening to this tremendous work, what will you think?

Stephen Pettitt