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Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, "Organ Symphony"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Lorin Maazel, conductor/Han-Na Chang, cello, performs Elgar Nov. 29 - Dec. 1, 2007
© Richard Freed

Saint-Saëns actually composed four earlier symphonies; this final one came to bear the number 3, however, because he withheld from publication two of the four he composed between the ages of 14 and 23. None of those early works-neither those numbered 1 and 2 nor the two without numbers-could have given any hint as to the utterly different kind of symphony this one in C minor would be. The Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, in 1830, had been the first major symphony by a French composer, and the few symphonies that other Frenchmen composed in the five decades that followed Berlioz's unprecedentedly colorful and dramatic specimens tended to be modest entertainments that relied mainly on songfulness and charm, such as the two attractive but unremarkable ones by Charles Gounod and the unarguably enchanting one by his seventeen-year-old pupil Georges Bizet (which was not heard until 1935, a hundred years after it was composed). The symphony Saint-Saëns composed for the Philharmonic Society-the organization that had commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Dvořák's Seventh-launched a new and enduring tradition of certifiably great French symphonies which owed little to any foreign influence.

Saint-Saëns himself, however, acknowledged a considerable indebtedness to Franz Liszt. He had been one of the numerous younger composers to receive hands-on encouragement from Liszt, who applauded his piano concertos, admired his skill at the keyboard, and conducted the premiere of his opera Samson et Dalila at Weimar. Saint-Saëns referred in a letter to "the orchestral works of Franz Liszt, whom the world calls a great pianist in order to avoid acknowledging him as one of the greatest composers of our time," and he became the first French composer to take up the symphonic poem, a genre created by Liszt. Like Liszt, he was a renowned virtuoso performer on both the piano and the organ, which instruments are included in the score of this symphony, the latter given so prominent a role that the work was referred to for years as the "Organ Symphony." The Symphony was in fact conceived as an outright tribute to Liszt, and when Saint-Saëns conducted the premiere the manuscript score bore a dedication to him; but Liszt died ten weeks after that event, without ever hearing the work, and the published score carried the dedication "À la mémoire de Franz Liszt."

For the premiere, Saint-Saëns wrote (in English, a language in which he was fluent):

This Symphony, divided into two parts, nevertheless includes practically the traditional four movements: the first, checked in development, serves as an introduction to the Adagio, and the scherzo is connected after the same manner with the finale. The composer has thus sought to shun in a certain measure the interminable repetitions which are more and more disappearing from instrumental music.

As in so many of Liszt's works (and those of Berlioz, and several of Saint-Saëns's own earlier ones, and the symphonies of César Franck and his disciples), there is a "motto" theme, introduced at the outset and subjected to various transformations in the succeeding sections of the Symphony. A brief  Adagio introduction leads to the first movement proper, a restless Allegro moderato. Saint-Saëns described the expansive Adagio that serves as the work's slow movement as being "extremely peaceful and contemplative": in it the organ makes its appearance in a supportive role, and the theme is taken up and enlarged by woodwind and brass. The theme of the Allegro returns to insert a note of unrest, but strings and organ prevail, ending the movement serenely.

The two movements that constitute the Symphony's second part contrast brilliantly with the preceding sections, though they are built on much the same material. The scherzo is charged with demonic vigor, its fantasy pointed up, Saint-Saëns noted, by "arpeggios and scales, swift as lightning, on the piano." The organ comes to the fore in the finale, which enters majestically and expands in grandeur. Following a brief pastoral interlude, the coda reaches a peak of exultation, capped by ringing fanfares.

Saint-Saëns had let twenty-seven years pass after composing the last of his four early symphonies, and might not have thought of composing another if he had not been specifically asked for one. He was only fifty years old, and had three dozen years left to him, but he clearly regarded the C-minor Symphony as his valedictory effort as a symphonist. "With it I have given all I could give," he said; "what I did I could not achieve again."