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Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) - Symphony No. 3 "Organ Symphony"

Berlioz thought him one of the great hopes of French music while others saw him as the French Mendelssohn. This apparent contradiction is not so much “what” as “when”. In his youth, Saint-Saëns was hot-blooded, both a banner-waving supporter of the avant-garde of Schumann and Wagner, and an enthusiastic revivalist, promoting the virtues of the then unfashionable Bach and Handel. As he grew older so his blood cooled, and precipitated the more traditional Gallic attributes - elegance, wit, refinement, charm (and so forth). He’d always been a top-notch pianist, tucking the 32 Beethoven sonatas under his belt by the age of ten, yet when he befriended Liszt (1852) the latter declared him to be “the world’s greatest organist” (I’m beginning to suspect there was a secret vetting committee, because it seems that every musician who gained admission to Liszt’s drawing-room came out with some accolade or other). 

That begs the question, in which of the two French organ camps did Saint-Saëns pitch his tent, the “one-man orchestra” most notably espoused by Widor and Vierne, or the “Pope and Emperor” proposed by Berlioz and exemplified by Guilmant? The answer is “neither”: he’d been busy with other things - concertos (both piano and violin), symphonies, symphonic poems, operas, and chamber music and, to be fair, the occasional minor organ work. Whilst he was a great organist, he was nowhere near a “specialist” organ composer. So where does this leave his great Organ Symphony of 1886? Not to be confused with any “organ symphony” à la Widor, that’s for sure! A mite less obviously, in relation to its full title of Symphony No. 3 in C minor, with Organ and Two Pianos, neither should it be confused with Guilmant’s “symphony for organ and orchestra”. 

What, then, is the nature of this beast? Most obviously, it is an elemental experience, a mind-bogglingly spectacular work that has a reputation for leaving audiences (and performers, for that matter) breathless in its wake. Less obviously it contains, like the Captain’s cake in “Carry on Cruising”, something from every port he ever visited. For example, it is filled with the “elegant lines, harmonious colours [and] fine series of chords” that he felt should entirely satisfy any understanding artist. On the one hand it is conservative, built within a classical framework and drawing on the styles and methods of the past. Yet on the other it is revolutionary, bending those classical structures to his own ends and making extensive use of Liszt’s idea of “thematic transformation” - in fact, I feel that you could trace all the themes back to the three lonely little motives in the work’s introduction (and this is something that you definitely can try at home!). To cap it all, Saint-Saëns comes off the fence in no uncertain terms: he makes possibly the definitive statement about the organ and orchestra, but not quite the one anybody (of either camp) expected. 

It’s not so much what he says, as how he goes about saying it. Saint-Saëns divides the “standard” four movements into two pairs. In each pair, only the second movement features the organ, so that the first effectively sets up a sonic “benchmark” against which we can measure the “distinctness” of the organ when it enters. Dull, or what? Well, let’s try to imagine what it must have been like for those early audiences, many of whom would have heard Guilmant’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra written a few years before - 

1. Adagio - Allegro moderato. We are all agog for the organ’s first entry in this “organ symphony” by “the world’s greatest organist”. Slightly surprised by the hushed opening, we soon become enchanted by the way Saint-Saëns builds a glorious sonata structure, progressing from those few wisps of motives to themes and melodies. However, the whole of the first movement passes, without so much as a peep from the pipes! Our feelings of growing tension intensify when the music, instead of stopping, subsides to a whisper of expectancy . . . 

2. Poco adagio. We are expecting some Big Entrance from the organ, but what do we hear? A luxuriant and lyrical string melody floats within a resonance more felt than heard, as if the breath of the Earth itself were filling the hall. As the music progresses through further “thematic transformations” of those original materials, we are struck with wonder: how supremely complementary are the organ and orchestra, sounding awesome in their impassioned serenity. 

3. Allegro moderato - Presto. Stuttering strings break the spell. The orchestra gets busily on with with a scherzo-like movement and still more thematic evolution, but the organ has fallen silent. Was that it? Our growing curiosity is diverted by the novelty of a pianist striking up a sparkle, but that urgent expectancy is re-ignited when, in the reprise, a bold new variant strides up purposefully though the chattering texture. Again, all subsides into a wondering whisper. Is the Earth again about to breathe into the hall? 

4. Maestoso - Allegro. No. Now it erupts, with all the force of a volcano! In the finale, we find that everything comes to fruition: the themes we have heard gestating now blossom in sonorous splendour, the pianist gets a sparkling partner, and the organ’s might is triumphantly integrated with the orchestra’s - what a team they make! 

Thus, it seems, did Saint-Saëns confound both camps: in his “organ symphony” the organ emerged as neither “substitute orchestra” nor “concerto-style soloist”. Rather than setting his “Pope” and his “Emperor” in opposition, with incredible ingenuity he instead forged them into a new-found alliance. All we need now is for the rest of the world to follow suit.


© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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