Spring Symphonies: 25/60 Saint-Saëns: Symphony No 3 “Organ Symphony”

This symphony opens with one of the simplest introductions: an adagio of a couple of orchestral sighs, illuminated by woodwind.  It’s probably the only orchestral opening most people will know of Saint-Saëns - aside from his Carnival of the Animals - his remaining work is not well known. There are 4 other symphonies and five piano concerti , over a dozen operas and countless keyboard, chamber, vocal and choral pieces.  It is for this symphony that he is best known - and so he should be, it is a very fine work, but there is mush else that's worth exploring in his canon.

Saint-Saëns had a long and productive life and not just musically, he was something of a polyglot - interested in science, poetry, philosophy and the occult.  It was also a life marked with the usual politics of the the French classical music scene. He died in 1921 at the age of 86 - the composer was at the top of his field fro a long time.  He dedicated this symphony to his friend, Franz Liszt - it dates from 1886, the year of Liszt’s death and was premiered the following year.  And was popular from the outset - it has been recorded many times and it’s slightly odd that it has only been performed 19 times at the Proms most performances coming in recent years.  Saint-Saëns reckoned it his finest achievement.

It is written as a two movement work - though often pans out as four tracks in recordings.

1. Adagio – Allegro moderato – Poco adagio
2. Allegro moderato – Presto – Maestoso – Allegro

So the briefest of openings takes us into a vigorous and busy first theme - confident and engaging.  There’s some very simple and straightforward writing here - easy to follow and easy to enjoy (I wonder if this counts against Saint-Saëns sometimes).  But the economy of Saint-Saëns style should not lead us to thinking this is not a substantial symphony. There’s a sweet melody which could have come from a song book which turns into a grand climax. the development of the themes is so deftly handled it would be easy to overlook the composer’s easy weaving of themes and building of tension.  The resulting recapitulation is fantastically dark and dramatic at first with plenty of bold brass writing - straight out of Wagner - but telling.  The decay of the Allegro section into the Adagio is masterful and rivals anything in music. It pivots around the organ pedal and then majestically opens out on strings. Oh, if only Elgar had composed with this level of taste and simplicity.

These bars are heart-rendering and bountiful at the same time.  It is exquisitely tender and charming and moves with a grace to never let us wallow in it.  Though I remember nights at the top of the Albert Hall in recent Proms where the sound was like the warmest of baths and the temptation just to bask in these radiant moments was overwhelming.  The music develops with the organ and orchestra supporting a mood of nobility and lyricism.  The orchestral elaborations with the organ interjections and support, are perfectly balanced and varied as the content is re-worked.  The close is wistful but not sentimental.  Saint-Saëns knew real tragedy in his life - his two sons died within six weeks of each other - this is not melancholic music for the stake of emotional manipulation - this is just beautiful music.

The next Allegro (the start of the second movement) has another example of the composer’s vigour.  There’s a assertive force behind this - at times the power is palpable (and anticipatory as we will see).  But the pointed obstinate dizzy dance of the Presto also includes a formidable piano solo. This whirlwind is dramatic building in it’s hurried expression and tense. The Allegro returns and so fulfils the role of a Scherzo in classical sense but in terms of a continuing narrative it is less a break but a further ramping up the tension.  There’s a Wagnerian element here - thinking of his dramatic second act finishes.  The presto returns but with a grand tune below it - I’m put in mind of Schumann’s Fourth symphony.  The reprises of Bruckner and Beethoven also seem to be acted out - though the material is far more subtle.  The music again grinds to a halt but this time the response if deafening.

The organ opens up with full pedal and grand colour.  The simple theme rings out - it’s slightly four square but develops through a series of variations including a deafening one for organ and then bursts into a fugue.  There are some lovely moments in this movement when solo winds lead the assemble with the huge bestial organ rumbling in the background.  Brass push the music to higher peaks of excitement - a passage recalling the original obstinate theme fills the texture and complex counterpoint out.  This glittering display is often overlooked in the concentration on the organ - but this is brilliantly orchestrated dazzling stuff.  The climax then has percussion and brass marching boldly forward only to be joined by the organ at full voice: in a venue with a big organ this is a visceral experience - felt as well as heard - your chest is full of music as well as your ears. The movement finishes in a glorious amalgam of orchestra, organ and a wave of low frequency vibrations which linger long after the music has stopped being heard.  Most performance have erupted into applause by then.

Saint-Saëns was honoured by the French state and his funeral was in Les Invalides in Paris - a mark of his significance.  I may rave about the music of Debussy and Ravel, grumpy tip a hat at Franck and Fauré, and sit open-mouthed at Berlioz (when I’m not bored to tears by him), but this symphony is terrific.  It needs to be attended to for all the instruments in it - not just the organ.  It is an ebullient reminder that this composer knew how to stop a show, to bring an audience to it’s feet and with remarkably simple means and stacks of skill and style, create a grand symphony to rival the Choral, the early Romantics and to my mind put most of Mahler in the shade (there, I’ve said it).

Here's Paavo Järvi giving you the Proms experience (in a performance I missed sadly) with the Orchestre de Paris


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