Friday, June 8, 2018

Saint-Saëns - Organ Improvisations, Opus 150, No. 1

François Benoist was the professor of organ at the Conservatoire de Paris for fifty years and many of France's finest musicians studied with him, organists and composers such as César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns to name only two.  He was a powerful influence, and was part of the training process to keep the Catholic churches of France stocked with trained organ players. It was the nature of church liturgy that created the tradition of organ improvisation in France, as Saint-Saëns said:
Formerly, Improvisation was the basis of organist`s talent; his virtuosity was slight – music written for organ with independent pedal was beyond his powers… It is improvisation alone that permits one to employ all the resources of a large instrument, and to adapt one´s self to the infinite variety of organs; only improvisation can follow the service perfectly, pieces written for this purpose being almost too short or too slow. Finally, the practice of improvisation frequently develops faculties of invention which, without it, would have remained latent.
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, France's musical life was in many ways centered around the new symphonic organs introduced by the organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. French organists and composers like Franck and Saint-Saëns worked with the builder to create an instrument that was symphonic in scope. The list of musicians trained on the organ in France is extensive, and includes some of the most well-known composers of the era.

Many young musicians made their living as church organists around France, as did Saint-Saëns. From 1853 to 1878 he played regularly in churches. He resigned in 1878, but never quit playing the instrument completely. He would visit his organist friends at their churches and take turns improvising with them.

Saint-Saëns wrote few works for solo organ, which underlines his thoughts on the instrument as mainly for improvisation or accompanying. The set of Seven Improvisations, opus 150 was written late in his career 1916-1917, as he was in bed recuperating from a bout of bronchitis.  The pieces look backward in their use of church modes and plainchant themes, standard fare for organ improvisation in France, but the first piece begins quietly with a whole tone scale in the pedals:

One of the most valuable innovations of Cavaillé-Coll organs was the swell device, a box surrounding the organ pipes that had shutters that could be opened and closed to control the volume of the sound coming from the organ. There was always a certain amount of control over volume with the organ before, but as the keyboard is not touch sensitive as the piano it was done by adding stops of pipes to the music line. Simply speaking, the more pipes engaged, the louder the sound. The swell device gave more control of volume and nuance, and directly lead to the symphonic school of organ playing and composition in France. This device is heard to good effect in this piece by Saint-Saëns.

Saint-Saëns kept up his organ and piano technique up until the very end of his life of 86 years. He himself played the premiere of the Seven Improvisations in 1917 when he was 82 years old.


  1. Does the Cavaillé-Coll organ in St. Sulpice, Paris really have 66,000 pipes??? The similar, and 2nd largest Cavaillé-Coll organ in Notre Dame has only approx 7,900 pipes.

  2. According to an article about this organ: "Cavaillé-Coll did not neglect to embellish the new instrument with his delightful harmonic flutes, impressive gambas, and massive reeds. The newly completed organ had 100 stops, 5 manuals and pedal, 20 windchests, 7 Barker levers, 8 double-rise reservoirs, and nearly 7,000 pipes, including two 32’ ranks, an open wood and bombarde."