Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 78 “Organ”
3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, piano (four hands), organ, strings
I. Adagio – Allegro moderato – Poco adagio
II. Allegro moderato – Presto – Maestoso – Allegro
First performance: May 19, 1886, St. James Hall, London. Royal Philharmonic Society. Camille Saint-Saëns, conductor.
In his Third Symphony, the “Organ” Symphony, Saint-Saëns announces his ambitions with his choice of key. C minor locates this work in the same vein as Beethoven’s Fifth and Brahms’s First Symphony. Beethoven was a longstanding influence in Saint-Saëns’s musical life—in concerts as a child prodigy, he would play from memory any Beethoven piano sonata the audience requested as an encore. By the time he undertook his last symphony, that influence had extended to his formal choices, particularly in his use of thematic transformation. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is memorably unified by the first four notes—three rapid blows and then a drop of a minor third—to which the important motives in each ensuing movement are related. Saint-Saëns sets out to achieve an even greater degree of integration as his symphony tracks four different themes through their transformations. (Not so coincidentally, all four themes also revolve around the interval of a minor third.) The harmonic path of the symphony also follows the tragic-to-triumphant arc of Beethoven’s Fifth, as the C minor of the beginning is eventually overcome by C major in the final movement.
Although Saint-Saëns’s choices pay homage, his own finale is not so much triumphal in the heroic sense as it is transcendent. Just after the organ—a force withheld from the rest of the symphony—finally enters, we hear a “celestial” version of the first theme from the strings, surrounded by glittering arpeggios on the piano. This and all the other themes are pulled into the radiant major mode, assuming chorale-like forms. Throughout the finale, the organ magnifies and grounds each theme, serving as a traditional cantus firmus rather than a concerto soloist. The result of this thematic and harmonic plan is that, by the end of the symphony, much of what you hear will feel familiar, like a buried memory gradually resurrected. This sense of familiarity is reinforced by a few carefully placed quotations. The Dies irae (a medieval chant from the Mass for the Dead) appears in the Allegro moderato of the first movement, and the “celestial” passage at the beginning of the finale bears some similarity to an Ave Maria by Jacques Arcadelt, which Saint-Saëns would have known through an organ transcription by Franz Liszt.
The symphony bears the dedication “to the memory of Franz Liszt”—the two composers were close friends, and Liszt knew of the dedication but died just two months after its premiere. The shadow of sorrow over the symphony has led some read it as a programmatic work in which Saint-Saëns inscribes the death and apotheosis of his friend. While Saint-Saëns could not have known what would happen, Liszt nonetheless haunts the work as much as Beethoven. By combining the four traditional movements of a symphony (Allegro, Adagio, Scherzo, and Finale) into two longer movements, Saint-Saëns bends the genre toward the tone poem—a genre of longer single movement or multi-sectional works that Liszt helped establish. Moreover, the path from mourning to glorification is similar to the program for Liszt’s Héroïde funèbre. Whether we choose to hear this program or not, the work is undeniably powerful in its beauty and depth of feeling—a fitting Swann song.