Thursday, January 14, 2021

Saint-Saëns - Symphony No. 3, "Organ"

Camille Saint-Saëns music has been accused of many faults. Superficiality, emotionally detached, conservative, and other words have been used to describe the music of Camille Saint-Saëns  There are reasons for such harsh criticism of the man and his music, despite his incredible musicianship and craftsmanship. As a direct opposite to his perfection in the craft of his art, his private life was less than orderly, which in his later years had a profound effect on his personality and dealings with his fellow composers.

His father died when he was a baby and he was raised by his mother and aunt. Thus he became very attached to his mother, who was a profound influence, perhaps to the point of dominating him and turning him into a Momma's boy. Saint-Saëns was a bachelor until his was nearly 40 years old, and despite his mother's objections, married a woman twenty years younger than himself. The couple had no honeymoon and directly moved into the apartment that Saint-Saëns shared with his mother.  The couple had two boys, both of whom died very young. The older child fell out of a window to his death and the younger one died only six weeks later from pneumonia.  These tragedies set an already rocky marriage on a downhill slide. Saint-Saëns was influenced by his mother (who loathed her daughter in law), and  blamed his wife for the death of both children.

A few years later the couple were on vacation in the summer of 1881, and with no warning Saint-Saëns left the hotel they were staying in. A legal separation was quickly obtained and he never saw his wife again.  The death of his mother in 1888 came close to driving him to suicide. He could no longer remain in the apartment he shared with her and began a life of wandering around the world. His personality also changed as he became cantankerous and overly critical of his fellow composers, especially the modern composers of the time such as Debussy. His musical output slowed and he became a very bitter, ultra-conservative musician. As a result of his misanthropy, opinions of him as a person and composer became just as nasty, a heritage that still taints his music, a heritage created by his own bitterness.

His Symphony No. 3 was composed on commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society of London. Saint-Saëns was a very popular composer in England, and he conducted the premiere of the work there in 1886. He also conducted the French premiere of the work in 1887.  His friend Franz Liszt died shortly after the premiere of the symphony, and Saint-Saëns dedicated the work to the memory of Liszt. A very appropriate dedication, for Saint-Saëns uses not only cyclical composing techniques in the work, but created a slightly different form for the symphony. The composer included the following description of his symphony in the program of the premiere:
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.
I. Adagio – Allegro moderato – As described by the composer, the symphony is in two parts with each part containing two of the usual movements of a symphony.  The first section is a slow introduction. The strings slowly and quietly begin and swell to a slight crescendo as the oboe enters. The movement proper begins (after string pizzicatos) with a nervous accompaniment in the strings. The main theme of the entire symphony is stuttering and anxious music, reminiscent of the first part of the ancient Dies Irae chant, a theme used by Berlioz and Liszt along with other composers. The second theme enters but is only less stuttering than the main theme and is akin to it.  Saint-Saëns uses Liszt's technique of theme transformation throught the first movement. Just as the development section is starting to change into the recapitulation, Saint-Saëns manipulated the music into a seamless segue into the second movement:

Poco adagio -
As in the transition from introduction to first movement, the pizzicato strings bring forth the next movement. After this slow introduction the organ makes its first entrance with long held, slowly progressing low tones. The strings play a lyrical theme as the organ continues to accompany. The main theme returns in the pizzicato strings and slowly combines with the new theme. The combination reaches a climax, and the music reduces in volume as the main theme slowly vanishes as the movement ends with hushed tones in the organ and strings.

II. Allegro moderato – Presto - A new theme in the agitated rhythm of the first movement enters, and is followed by another variant of the main theme. The trio of this scherzo has another variant of the main theme and includes the piano in the mix. The scherzo is repeated, parts of the trio are repeated after which the music slowly leads to the first theme  that has shifted from C minor to C major and acts as a segue to the last movement:

Maestoso - Allegro -  A huge C major chord begins the last movement, the strings and organ alternate until the strings and piano (played 4 hands) transform the first theme in a rippling chorale. Saint-Saëns pulls out all the stops of the organ (and orchestra) in a repeat of the main theme chorale, after which a short fugue discusses the main theme in a different variation of it.  The main theme continues to grow and mutate throughout the movement until Saint-Saëns goes completely over the top with full orchestra and organ as the tempo increases and the music races to a grand ending.

Saint-Saëns was a master of the piano, as well as the organ (Liszt called him the best organist in the world) and orchestra. This symphony combines his mastery of instruments and instrumentation into one of the most popular symphonies ever written. The composer himself thought that this symphony was his last, as he said:
I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.
There are of course listeners that don't like the 3rd Symphony, as with any piece of music. Music is a very personal thing after all. But from time to time the symphony still receives harsh criticism, perhaps left over from a tradition of throwing rotten eggs at Saint-Saëns because of what he became late in life.


  1. cette Symphonie est un grand chef-d'oeuvre, et Saint_Saëns un musicien tout à fait sousestimé