cc st saëns

Symphony No. 3 (Saint-Saëns)

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.

Of composing the work Saint-Saëns said that he had "given everything to it I was able to give." 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 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 in 1886, conducted by the composer.


The symphony usually lasts for about 35 minutes, no 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 theories of thematic development, 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 standard symphony 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.

  1. AdagioAllegro moderatoPoco adagio
  2. Allegro moderatoPresto — 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 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.

Modern interpretations

The main theme of the Maestoso was later adapted and used in the 1977 pop-song If I Had Words by Scott Fitzgerald and F. Ivonne Keely. The Maestoso movement has been used in the French exhibit at Epcot in Disney World. It also (beginning with the C chord, and ending just short of the final allegro) served as overture to Laserium's first all-classical show, Crystal Odyssey. The song and the symphony can also be heard in the 1995 family film Babe and the 1989 black comedy, How to Get Ahead in Advertising.

Performances and recordings

The symphony continues to be a frequently performed and recorded part of the standard repertoire. However, many renditions tend to be lacking due to various reasons such as a too-Gemanic interpretation of the work by some conductors, an excessively bravado rendition by the organist, less than ideal recording techniques, and so on, but the biggest detriment to the work is usually the expedient technique of the orchestra recording taking place in one venue at one time, and the organ in another at a different time, the two recordings then being spliced together in the studio – this tends to be very detrimental to the work. It is worth noting that the following well-regarded and very popular recordings of the work were all recorded in real time - the orchestra and organ were both recorded simultaneously in the same hall:

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 justly famous 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 Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Berj Zamkochian at the organ (RCA).

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