Organ Symphony

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 "Organ"

  1. Adagio – Allegro moderato
  2. Poco adagio
  3. Allegro moderato – Presto
  4. Maestoso – Allegro

In addition to being a great composer, Camille Saint-Saëns was a gifted conductor, pianist and organist. The last of these had an important influence on the most popular of his five symphonies, which famously features the sound of the organ.

But the Symphony No. 3 is a mighty symphony without even considering the organ. It is scored for a large orchestra including, unusually, a double bassoon, bass clarinet and four piano hands. The same themes recur throughout the entire work, giving it a cohesive feel – you can always be sure of what you are listening to, even if you are not familiar with a particular section.

Saint-Saëns was greatly influenced by Liszt – this association leaves its mark on his work, which is essentially neo-Classical. Liszt died two months after the Symphony No. 3 was first performed in 1886, and so the symphony is dedicated to him.

The symphony is roughly in the traditional four-movement format, although the two pairs of movements are linked together to form two continuous, contrastive parts. The first movement begins with a brief introductory section – an adagio played mainly on strings and woodwind. The remainder of the movement is faster – it introduces the main theme which is to appear throughout the work, including the famous Maestoso. Plucked strings feature prominently later in the movement, and are abundant in the rest of the symphony.

The second movement follows straight on, and begins with the first appearance of the organ. (Some people mistakenly believe that the organ is heard only at the end of the symphony, but this movement sees a quieter stop used to great effect).

The third movement contrasts significantly with the adagio before it. It begins with a fast and frantic section, using the original theme turned upside-down. Then suddenly, after this serious, dramatic section, comes a much more light-hearted moment with runs up the piano reminiscent of Carnival of the Animals. After a while, there is a reprise of the opening section of the movement, but played more determinedly than before. Then back we go again to the second section, but this time one of the main themes is superimposed. The movement peters out as the finale of the work is approached.

A great chord on the organ heralds the start of one of the most triumphant moments in the history of music. The main theme is played first by the strings and tinkling piano before the organ takes over, with brass fanfare and rolling timpani that would in any other circumstances sound excessive. But here, Saint-Saëns makes them work perfectly. The only fault is that this section is not nearly long enough! The fourth movement then continues, complete with organ, to a dramatic conclusion, but somehow it never again becomes quite as triumphant as the Maestoso. But it is by no means a disappointment, and has listeners on the edges of their seats right until the timpani beats out the closing notes.

Saint-Saëns never allowed his Carnival of the Animals to be published during his lifetime for fear that it would overshadow his other works. When it was published posthumously, his fears seemed only too well-founded. But it has never managed to outshine the Organ Symphony which, according to a recent survey of classical music tastes, is one of the most popular works ever written. Ironically, when it was the symphony’s turn to be used as a film theme, the film was Babe – the story of a little pig. It seems that, as hard as he may have tried, Saint-Saëns will never be free of association with animals!

2 responses to “Organ Symphony”

  1. Paul

    I would love to know who played the otgan at the premiere in London of Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony. Can anyone help, please? Thanks!

  2. roger

    A few years ago, I heard a recording with this rather “raw” organ. It rattled the speakers in my auto and I never found out who wasa the producer. Any ideas??????????

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