Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) - Symphony No. 3 "Organ
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
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”.
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.
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 -
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 . . .
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.
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?
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!
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,
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