Monsieur Saint-Saëns and that Chord
Some personal reflections on Saint-Saëns’ “organ symphony”

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to play Saint–Saëns’ “organ symphony” a great many times, both as a pianist and an organist. I’m frequently asked about aspects of the work, and a recent question led me to pen a few personal thoughts about the piece. The question I was asked (actually, rather more of a leading statement) was, “It must be wonderful to play Saint–Saëns’ Organ Concerto.” The work isn’t and never was, an organ concerto – the organ part is an orchestral organ part. Saint–Saëns himself described the work as Symphony No. 3 “avec orgue“, reflecting not only that the inclusion of an organ part in a symphony was fairly unusual at that point in musical history but also that it does not have concerto status.

Commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society (at the time, just The Philharmonic Society), the symphony was first performed in London’s St James’ Hall (now demolished) in 1886 and is dedicated to the memory of Franz Liszt who died in the same year. Saint–Saëns said of the symphony, “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.”

Starting with a somewhat subdued and disquieted figure in the key of C minor, aspects of the symphony suggest an almost autobiographical aspect to its composition with reflections on his own musical experience and life, ending in a triumphant C major and including references to the Dies Irae (‘day of wrath’) along the way. Saint–Saëns was a fine organist and pianist – he was organist at the Paris church of the Madeleine, and at the premiere of the third symphony, he performed his fourth piano concerto. The symphony includes featured parts for both the organ and piano in the orchestral texture, neither of which were common symphonic instruments at the time.

I’ve therefore long been intrigued by the elevation of this wonderfully crafted symphony to almost the status of an organ concerto. This would seem to have been broadly due to commercial considerations or for reasons of self-promotion. However, this amazing piece is so much less, or should I say, more than this. It could be argued that the popular ‘enthusiasm’ for this work is pretty much down to one simple, though emotionally charged, C major chord that occurs at the start of the final section (I’m ignoring the popularity of this section’s main theme in the context of the 1996 movie Babe, and in the earlier 1978 pop song If I had Words by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley.)

By their very nature, organs have the power to excite, but the only real demands of playing this exciting chord are making sure the organ is still turned on, pulling out some stops, waiting for the previous section to finish, getting a nod from the conductor, and playing the chord. Contrary to what might be thought, there's absolutely no necessity to count the hundreds of preceding bars in which you don't play! This wonderful moment is actually marked to be played just forte (loud) – not very loud, not as loud as possible, and certainly not full organ. Playing at the indicated volume produces the required dramatic contrast with the extended and extremely quiet section that precedes it. However, some conductors and promoters routinely attempt to insist on this being played as loudly as possible. To do so is totally unnecessary; it's not what the composer asked for and shows the organist's hand ahead of the tumultuous ending of the work, complete with trumpets and timpani, therefore allowing no further excitement to be summoned from the organ.

Many of the available recordings are balanced to perpetuate the impression of the organ as a solo instrument, while others, notably Simon Preston with the Berlin Philharmonic, keep the instrument as an appropriate feature of the symphonic texture.

To think of this symphony broadly in respect of just one chord and the ensuing rumbustious section of this great piece, would be to do it a great disservice. For many, the second, slow section of the first movement is the jewel in the work's symphonic crown (the work is actually in two movements, each with two sub-movements). This slow 'movement' opens with the first and very quiet entry of the organ, providing a bedrock for the exquisite theme played by the violins. The organ plays just a textural and accompanying role throughout.

The second movement opens with a scherzo-like section, and this provides some fireworks for the orchestral concertante pianist. This part can be significantly more demanding than that for the organ, especially when the conductor decides to go rogue in the middle of the virtuosic scale passages! A particular pleasure afforded to the pianist is the camaraderie of a second pianist who joins him at the start of the finale to play a little tinkling piano duet – a most beautiful moment reminiscent of  The Aquarium movement from Saint–Saëns' The Carnival of the Animals. The second pianist's presence also affords some welcome company during the frequently slow progress of first-movement rehearsals, which can offer particular orchestral challenges, especially if an inappropriate tempo is set.

There are symphonic and choral works which have significantly more visible and challenging organ parts – you only have to look at the near virtuosic demands of the organ writing in parts of the first movement of Mahler's 8th Symphony, for example. However, this is not in any way to detract from the beauty and emotional power of this symphony, which displays all the wonderfully crafted features which would be expected from Saint-Saëns. Beyond 'the chord', the work's popularity and immediate appeal are a testament to the composer's innate craftsmanship.

Copyright © 2024 Roderick Elms

Copyright © 2019 Roderick Elms Music. All rights reserved.