“Organ” Symphony

By Camille Saint-Saëns
Composed in 1886

Although a quintessentially French composer, Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) composed his third symphony on a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society in England, and conducted the première himself in London in 1886. Popularly called the “organ” symphony, it is actually a symphonic work which features an organ in two of its movements (with notable effect). Saint-Saëns wrote this as a two-movement work, although it has the feel of a four-movement piece. It has an unusual and large instrumental complement (besides the organ, the second movement has 2-hand and 4-hand piano parts).

The 3rd symphony is a masterpiece of composition, with most of the thematic material developed from the opening parts of the first movement. A slow introduction features rising lines from the oboe and flutes, which are then prominently featured throughout the first movement. The following allegro features a fast off-the-beat string theme in C minor, echoed by the winds. Saint-Saëns uses this theme throughout the symphony in various guises – such as pizzicato figures in the low strings, melodic solos in the woodwinds, and last (but not least!) in the second movement.

The adagio at the end of the first movement introduces the organ as both accompaniment and obbligato to an ethereally beautiful rising string melody, which is repeated by wind soloists (clarinet, horn and trombone), with subsequent variations by the violins and full orchestra.

The second movement begins with a repeated vigorous triple meter allegro, and an even faster presto section (reminiscent of classical minuet and trio movements); the presto features wind flourishes brilliant piano scales. After a soft choral interlude in the strings, the organ makes its grand entrance; the first movement C minor string theme majestically reappears in C Major (first in the strings and 4-hand piano, and then in the organ and brass).

A vigorous fugal section gives way to ever faster variations on the main themes. After a descending scale in the organ, the symphony ends in a rousing flourish of trumpets, brass and timpani.