Saint-Saëns – Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, “Organ Symphony,” Op. 78

by Max Derrickson

Camille Saint-Saëns
(Born in Paris in 1835; died in Algiers, Algeria in 1921)

Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, “Organ Symphony,” Op. 78
Part One: 1. Adagio – Allegro moderato – 2. Poco adagio
Part Two: 3. Allegro moderato – Presto – 3. Maestoso – Allegro

Among the many talents of French composer Camille Saint-Saëns – this incredible polymath was an art, music and literary critic, a published astronomer, an expert on moths, to name but a few – was his renown as one of the great organists of his time.  But he is remembered most by music lovers, of course, for writing some of Western music’s most beloved works, among the most cherished being his superb Symphony No. 3, his “Organ Symphony.”

Saint-Saëns was commissioned to write a new work in 1886 by the Royal Philharmonic Society in London (the same Society that commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1824).  Saint-Saëns’s fame was worldwide by then.  Realizing that France was lagging behind the rest of the Western Symphonic tradition, Saint-Saëns had been trying [. . .]

[. . .] This thematic material is clearly heard as he transforms it in the scherzo which opens Part Two, but one can hear that same theme morph and appear all the way through to the glorious final bars.  The themes themselves [. . .]  the kind of twinkle that Saint-Saëns loved so much in his star gazing.

Of special note, of course, is the addition of the organ, which curiously, despite the Symphony’s nickname, contributes relatively little [. . .]   Soon all instruments combine to catapult the Symphony to its exhilarating ending – organ blasting, brass heralding, and timpani pounding.  Not only did Saint-Saëns succeed in reviving the French Symphonic genre, but he created his ultimate masterpiece.  Charles Gounod referred to Saint-Saëns as [. . .]

“With it I have given all I could give. What I did I could not achieve again.”