The Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, was completed by Camille Saint-Saëns in 1886 at what was probably the artistic zenith of his career. It is also popularly known as the "Organ Symphony", even though it is not a true symphony for organ, but simply an orchestral symphony where two sections out of four use the pipe organ. The French title of the work is more accurate: Symphonie No. 3 "avec orgue" (with organ).
Of composing the work Saint-Saëns said "I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again." The composer seemed to know it would be his last attempt at the symphonic form, and he wrote the work almost as a type of "history" of his own career: virtuoso piano passages, brilliant orchestral writing characteristic of the Romantic period, and the sound of a cathedral-sized pipe organ. The work was dedicated to the memory of Saint-Saëns's friend Franz Liszt, who died that year, on July 31, 1886.
This 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' Hall, conducted by the composer. He also conducted the French premiere in January 1887.
The symphony usually lasts for about 35 minutes, not longer than 40 minutes.
One of the most outstanding and original features of the piece is the ingenious use of keyboard instruments: piano scored for both two and four hands at various places and an organ. The symphony also makes innovative use of cyclic thematic material. Saint-Saëns adapted Liszt's methods of thematic transfiguration, so that the subjects evolve throughout the duration of the symphony.
Though it is frequently listed, even on record and CD covers, as a symphony for orchestra "and organ" the composer inscribed it as a symphony for orchestra "avec" ("with") organ, which is a more accurate way of describing it.
Although this symphony seems to follow the normal four-movement structure, and many recordings break it in this way, it was actually written in two movements; Saint-Saëns intended a novel two-movement symphony. The composer did note in his own analysis of the symphony, however, that while it was cast in two movements, "the traditional four movement structure is maintained".
Instrumentation and score
The symphony is scored for a rather large orchestra comprising 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, strings (2 violin parts, violas, cellos, double basses), piano (two and four hands), and pipe organ.
- Adagio — Allegro moderato — Poco adagio
- Allegro moderato — Presto — Maestoso — Allegro
The first movement, after a slow introduction, leads to a theme of Mendelssohnian character, followed by a second subject of a gentler cast, with various secondary themes played in major, and soon after repeated in minor forms; chromatic patterns play an important role in both movements. This material is worked out in fairly classical sonata-allegro form, and gradually fades to a quieter mood, which becomes a slightly ominous series of plucked notes in cello and bass, ending on a G pitch, followed by a slow and soft sustained A flat note in the organ, resolving into the new key of D flat for the Poco Adagio section of the movement. This evolves as a beautiful dialogue between organ and strings, recalling the earlier main theme of the movement before the recapitulation. The movement ends in a quiet morendo.
The second movement opens with an energetic strings melody, which gives way to a Presto version of the main theme, complete with extremely rapid scale passages in the piano. The Maestoso is introduced by a full C major chord in the organ. Piano four-hands is heard at the beginning with the strings, now playing the C major evolution of the original theme. The theme is then repeated in powerful organ chords, interspersed with brass fanfares. (It also includes a remarkable parody of the Dies Irae.) This well-known last movement is of considerable variety, including polyphonic fugal writing and a brief pastoral interlude, replaced by a massive climax of the whole symphony characterised by a return to the introductory theme in the form of major scale variations. The lowest pedal notes of both the Poco Adagio and the Maestoso, played on the organ, are of almost inaudibly low frequency. When experienced live in a concert hall equipped with a large concert organ with 32-foot pedal stops (e.g. the Royal Albert Hall Organ) these notes are very dramatic and give a deeply impressive aural experience.
The main theme of the Maestoso was later adapted and used in the 1977 pop-song If I Had Words by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley. The Maestoso movement has been used in the French exhibit at Epcot in Disney World. The song and the symphony was used as the main theme in the 1995 family film Babe and can be heard in the 1989 black comedy, How to Get Ahead in Advertising. The piece is also featured in the Blue Stars Drum and Bugle Corps 2008 show "Le Tour: Every Second Counts" in the finale. The tune of the symphony also serves as the national anthem of the micronation of the Empire of Atlantium under the name "Auroran Hymn".
The composer Philip Sparke created a brass band test piece based on the symphony which was then assigned to Fourth Section bands for the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain in 2010.
Performances and recordings
The French premiere was on 9 January 1887, conducted by the composer, at concert of the Société des Concerts.
The United States premiere was given on 19 February 1887, conducted by Theodore Thomas, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.
The symphony continues to be a frequently performed and recorded part of the standard repertoire.
The Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy conducting. The performance with organist Virgil Fox received these reviews:
- This beautifully played performance outclasses all versions of this symphony. - Fanfare Magazine
- This is the most hair-raising sound of any recording of this work. - The New Records.
The 1957 recording by Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Marcel Dupré as organist is also highly regarded (Mercury Records), as is the 1959 recording with Charles Münch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Berj Zamkochian at the organ (RCA).
Simon Preston made a recording in 1987 with James Levine conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon.
The symphony was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the 2009 BBC Proms season as the finale to a concert celebrating the 800th anniversary of the University of Cambridge, as the composer was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university in 1893.
Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded the Symphony #3 again in 1980 for the Telarc Digital label with Michael Murray as organist. The recording was a landmark in the early history of digital recording.