1886: Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 (ORGAN) in C minor

THURSDAY, October 29, 2020 – 9:43 PM

Symphony No. 3 (ORGAN) in C minor, age 51

The symphony was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in England, and the first performance was given in London on 19 May 1886, at St James’s Hall, conducted by the composer. After the death of his friend Franz Liszt on 31 July 1886, Saint-Saëns dedicated the work to Liszt’s memory. The composer also conducted the symphony’s French premiere in January 1887.

Instrumentation:

  • organ
  • 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon
  • 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum
  • piano (two and four hands)
  • strings

Riccardo Minasi

1st movement

2nd movement

3rd movement

4th movement

1st movement

The composer marked this symphony has having two parts, and from that many conclude that there are two movements. This is wrong. He said, in fact, that there are indeed four movements, and just by listening this is very clear. In fact starting with a slow intro is very common for this time period, so there is nothing unusual about that. He follows with typical sonata form. The movement ends very quietly, and in fact the ending very much reminds me of a part of Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique”. Aslo, he has a 2nd theme in E major here. He moves to G#ø, appears to suggest C# to F#m. It’s all implied. Then again a single note, E, horn. Build hint of a dim chord, then F#7, back to dim. Organ hits Ab, then someone hits F, Db is added and it’s the start of the 2nd movement. There is no stop.

2nd movement

He slips from C minor to Db major, not an unusual move and a very nice one, and that’s rather easy to do. Cm to Ab is a single morph, and Ab just needs to turn into Ab7 to move to Db.But what he did was a lot more complicated, more sophisticated and more sneaky. He kept hinting at different chords, all of which are morphs. As expected this is the slow, thoughtful 2nd movement that is fully common.

3rd movement

It’s a scherzo. It doesn’t say that, but a scherzo it is. It’s a fast three, and even though it’s marked as moderately fast, it’s actually quite fast. But it’s also heavy, very heavy accents, weight. Then instead of a trio there is a very fast, lighter section for contrast. The first section returns, the second comes back too but somewhat altered, then right at the end there is a very slow part  – not marked slow – that is like a very simple chant. That’s going to be the main them of the last movement.

4th movement

It starts out marked “Maestoso”, majestically, but it actually starts out with a huge C major chord on the organ that should make your teeth rattle. What the organ does is announce that the whole orchestra is going to sound like an even bigger organ, so that the real organ is an organ within an organ. From there is just intensifies to a climax that is just about unmatched in all musical history. There are many tempo indications towards the end, and there is one of the most unusual tempo markings I’ve seen in symphony – 3/1. That means three beats to the measure, and the whole note gets the beat. This reflects his theme, which is essentially a chant.

Overview

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns lived until 1921, but he was born at a time in which Romanticism dominated music, in 1830, so he rejected almost all later styles of music. His organ symphony may be his most famous composition, and in the final movement he not only used the organ, he also used two pianos. I did not first hear this until my early 20s, and I have no idea why I did not get to know it much sooner.

1 thought on “1886: Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 (ORGAN) in C minor

  1. I like all three movements, and I like how they move together. The organ not coming in until the end is perfect, because it is such a massive instrument – an orchestra of its own – that a hint of organ in the 2nd movement (I think) and then coming full in, in the last, this just works.

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