Saint-Saëns Symphony no. 3 in Cm, op. 78 ‘avec Orgue’

performed by the Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille under Myung-Whun Chung, Michael Matthes, organ

(cover image by John Towner)

I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.

Saint-Saëns, of his third symphony

We’ve seen Saint-Saëns only a few times on the blog, but this symphony is one of the main reasons I was so eager to begin the French Symphony Series. It’s an outstanding work, perhaps one of the most unique, inventive, memorable symphonies of the 19th century, really a masterpiece.

It was to be Saint-Saëns’ last, and perhaps he knew it. His statement above, which opened the article, makes it sound like he’s okay peaking with this work. He wrote a total of five piano concertos in addition to the violin concertos, cello concertos, etc., but this work above them all is really magnificent.

The piece was a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in England. Thus, the premiere was given in London on May 19, 1886, and subsequently dedicated to the memory of the composer’s friend Franz Liszt upon his death, on July 31 of that year. The piece wouldn’t be premiered in France until the following year. Interestingly, Saint-Saëns makes use of a trick he learned from Liszt (or at least that Liszt himself enjoyed using). Wiki says:

Saint-Saëns adapted Liszt’s methods of thematic transformation, so that the subjects evolve throughout the duration of the symphony.

While you’ll often see the work broken into four separate tracks in recordings, in reality, it is only a two-movement piece, with each movement in two sections, and this thematic transformation carries through the entire work. The composer himself noted, though, that “the traditional four movement structure is maintained,” as we shall see. In addition to a typical Romantic-era sized orchestra, the work features piano (for both two and four hands) as well as the eponymous organ. It is not an ‘organ symphony,’ like Charles-Marie Widor would write (and who will also get no more mention than that in this series), but ‘the Organ symphony.’ It was titled in French as the symphony ‘with organ’ but it has since become the piece’s moniker.

The work begins with a slow introduction, really just a few very simple gestures, like sighs, maybe calling Tchaikovsky to mind for modern listeners, and the first glimpses of where this work will go, like climbing to the top of a craggy mountain, is the pizzicato gestures that introduce the nervous strings to come. In this first part of the first movement, what acts as the standard first movement form, we have power and spirit of which even Beethoven would likely have been envious had he been around to hear it.

There’s fantastic sleight of hand here, in that the music changes but doesn’t. Listen for what we’d call (in a more traditional layout) the second subject, where things become less nervous, and warmer, rounder; flute leads the melody, with strings behind her. We’ve left the darkness of Cm, but not permanently.

The second part of this first movement is what seems to serve as the slow movement. It may not catch everyone’s eye (well, ear), but (formally) in the same movement, the composer moves from C minor to D-flat major, what Tom Service says is “a startling semitonal shift away from the home key.”

What might be so arrestingly beautiful about this entire piece is how every moment of it, every phrase, is so passionately inspired. The composer has a truly magnificent talent for not only the boisterous, bold, exciting facets of a large-scale work such as this, but proves also to be more than adept when it comes to the tender, supple serenade-like sounds of strings and organ in what functions essentially as the slow movement. It’s colorful, pleasant, almost meditative at times, but as you listen, there are revealed connections to the overall work that make it so much more than just a section of pretty music. Service says:

The slow movement’s Poco adagio does, crucially, introduce the gentle, lowering presence of the organ as a key character in the work’s drama, and it also acts as a moment of visionary repose in the middle of the sounds and furies around it.

We are now officially in the second movement, which bursts excitingly to life in response to (or else in spite of) the quiet close of the previous movement. This clearly functions as the scherzo, although the two sections of this movement have much the same direction, creating a sense of urgency and excitement. The scherzo is driving, propulsive, but what feels like the trio section, featuring busy piano figurations, bursts with florid color. Service remarks that “The scherzo section is a kind of gigantic upbeat to the finale – fragments of its melody are disguised, transformed, and finally revealed.”

This two-part movement, much like the first movement, waits until the second section to reveal the organ, and while it made its appearance quietly and subtly in the first movement, it explodes into action here, ready to present what Service calls “that (in)famous melody” and “the Theme of Themes.” But what we quickly hear, despite the organ’s almost aggressive presentation of C major, is far beyond bombast. There’s a return of that florid, glimmering, shiny sound with the inclusion of yet more hands on more (piano) keys. There grows a sense of almighty triumph, astounding, unmatched vibrance.

Is that a hint of the Dies Irae, though? It certainly seems like it, doesn’t it? That’s a discussion for another time (well, likely never for me, as it likely involves much more pedantry than I’m capable of; I say it is), but ultimately, what a jaw-dropping, breath-stealing climax not only to this work, but perhaps even to the composer’s output, symphonic or otherwise, really his entire career. There’s really very little in music that I can think of (save, perhaps, Mahler 2, and 8, Beethoven 9, maybe a handful of other concert pieces) that even come close to white-hot grandeur that this piece attains.

I have the image, at the end of the symphony, of the concert hall being miraculously lifted off the ground and held aloft by the combined efforts of all those pipes and all that air; … The whole work is a magnificent and fantastical symphonic machine that’s an apotheosis of the orchestral technology of the late 19th century.

Service’s sentiments above couldn’t be more eloquently stated.

This work was one of the key pieces behind the decision to do the French symphony now, as probably the most famous, well-known piece in the whole series, and for good reason. There’s much more to see and hear and read, though, so do stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.


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