Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony No.3 ‘Organ’


Camille Saint-Saëns composed his popular Third Symphony in 1886 after a commission from the Philharmonic Society in the UK was presented to him. The composer conducted both the UK and French premiere of the symphony in 1886/87. After the death of Franz Liszt, Saint-Saëns dedicated the symphony to his memory. Saint-Saëns famously stated this about the Third Symphony:

“I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”

Also referred to as the Organ Symphony, the work is still in a loose symphonic form, with the addition of an organ for two of the four movements. 


The Music

Although embracing the four-movement traditional structure, the symphony is split into two parts:

“Nevertheless, it embraces in principle the four traditional movements, but the first is altered in its development to serve as the introduction to the Poco adagio, and the scherzo is connected by the same process to the finale.”


Part I

After a slow introduction, Saint-Saëns plunges the music into its main theme. Based on traditional classical-era character, the theme is initially led by the woodwinds. The bounce of the theme paired with the fizz of the upper string part here is exciting and soon leads to a flourish of colour across the orchestra. The theme is initially played in the minor and is soon modulated into the major, with Saint-Saëns utilising chromatic movement to aid these transitions. 

There are huge climaxes of sound which are supported by the brass who create big swells of sound that adds to the drama and intensity of the music. The end of the first movement sees the orchestra come down in dynamic, with only a few soloists leading the line by the end. 

The second movement within Part I opens once again with a slow theme that is led by the strings. Saint-Saëns’ rich orchestrations shine through here, with deep-rooted harmonies and sparkling textures fill the atmosphere. A slow-developing movement, throughout the c.10 minutes of this movement, Saint-Saëns moves the theme around to different sections of the orchestra, whilst still keeping the music interesting and developing. Saint-Saëns uses shards of plainsong throughout the symphony to unify themes, and this movement is perhaps the clearest example of this. With the themes tied up neatly, this movement ends Part I with a solemn feeling. 


Part II

The loud and aggressive string entrance is bold and powerful, with the orchestra following suit in terms of character and drive. Dynamic contrasts lead the way to create intensity within the music. Saint-Saëns utilises his keyboard instruments, with the pianos adding to the theme after its initial run through. Rapid scale passages return in different sections of the orchestra, with the opening rousing theme returning for a recapitulation section near the end of the movement. As the mood drops, this movement ends quietly. 

The finale movement of the second section starts with a grand C major chord from the organ before the famous Part I theme returns. Once again Saint-Saëns uses the keyboard instruments to his advantage as he writes a sparkling scalic effect over the sweet violin melody in the first section. The powerful organ adds a new dimension to the music, with the brass playing fanfares to support this bold character. 

Saint-Saëns fits a lot into this final movement, with a fugal section soon taking over before a brief slow interlude takes hold. Throughout the textures are rich and full-bodied, with Saint-Saëns ensuring that all voices are balanced, even through the incredibly loud sections. The big climax of the movement comes after the pastoral interlude, and is based on one of the first themes heard in the symphony. Big tutti scalic movement is heard across the orchestra with the brass fanfaring over the top. The excitement and general buzz at this point is huge, with the orchestra working hard to keep the adrenaline high. 

The coda quickly builds up voices on a swirling theme. The brass play a classic fanfare in the major over the top, with the timpani supporting with big hits. The final chord, which also includes the organ, is massive, with the brass ending this famous symphony heroically. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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