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At-A-Glance

Listen to audio:

Composed: 1886

Length: c. 34 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clari- net, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), piano (four-hands), organ, and strings

About this Piece

Saint-Saëns was an organist himself, winning first prize in organ at the Paris Conservatory in 1851. His “Organ” Symphony, however, is no virtuoso vehicle (the nickname is not his). Rather it is a remarkable example of scoring for keyboard instruments – including piano four-hands! – in a symphonic context.

Saint-Saëns was hugely popular in England as a conductor and pianist as well as a composer. (He eventually received honorary doctorates from both Cambridge and Oxford, and was made a Commander of the Victorian Order after composing a coronation march for Edward VII in 1902.) He first traveled to England in 1871, playing for Queen Victoria and studying Handel’s manuscripts in the Buckingham Palace library.

In 1886, the Philharmonic Society commissioned his Third Symphony and Saint-Saëns conducted the premiere in London. Although Saint-Saëns came to be considered a conservative – if not reactionary– composer, his Symphony No. 3 is highly original and innovative in many ways, including form and thematic development as well as instrumentation. The typical symphony, as received from the Classical era, had four movements: an opening in the so-called ‘sonata’ form, contrasting and developing themes and tonal levels; a slow movement that was often a type of orchestral song; a quick scherzo, usually a humorous dance; and a finale commonly composed as a sonata-rondo, a lively and lighter embodiment of sonata-form principles.

In his Third Symphony, Saint-Saëns condensed these movements into two, eliminating sections that would have repeated material. After a brief, slow introduction, his opening movement begins as a sonata form.

But at the point where a typical sonata movement would have begun recapitulating the original thematic materials, Saint-Saëns instead moves directly into a slow movement in the remote key of D-flat major.

This may sound dauntingly technical, but in sound the moment is impossible to miss, as the organ makes its first entrance, soft and low, and the strings slide in with lyrical bliss. Serenity replaces neurotic urgency as the movement grows to euphoric heights.

Saint-Saëns does something similar with the second half of his Symphony. His scherzo section seems well articulated, aggressively driven strings giving way to lighter, quieter music mostly in woodwinds, with ascending scales and broken chords in the piano. But just as the pattern of formal repetition seems clear, chaos breaks in and the music finds its way to a haunted recollection of the blissful string chorale. This dwindles to another point of dissolution, and again Saint-Saëns uses the organ to signal a major architectural pillar, this time with a loud C- major chord. The finale builds with aspiring brilliance to the apotheosis of C major in a gloriously over-the-top coda.

Saint-Saëns dedicated the Symphony to the memory of Franz Liszt, who died in June of 1886. Liszt promoted the concept of cyclical thematic transformation, the extended development and variation of a single motivic source across all the movements or sections of a work, and Saint-Saëns was much influenced by the idea. He uses it in the Third Symphony with great imagination and flair. The gradual transformation of the Symphony’s motto, from its initial nervy appearance to its full climactic glory, gives the work its keenly felt unity and sense of questing direction.