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.
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".
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.
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).