Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 78

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        Camille Saint-Saëns lived a long life, and was remarkable for his wide-ranging intellectual interests and abilities.  As a child he was, of course, a precocious musical talent, but even then he evinced a strong natural interest in almost every academic subject--including, but certainly not restricted to, astronomy, archaeology, mathematics, religion, Latin, and Greek.  In addition to a life of musical composition and virtuoso keyboard performance, he also enjoyed success as a music journalist, champion of early music (Handel and Bach), and leadership in encouraging French musical tradition.  His father died when he was an infant, and he grew into middle age extraordinarily devoted to his mother--his marriage at the age of forty to a nineteen-year old did not last long.  He simply left the house one day in 1881 and chose never to see her again; she died in 1950 at the age of ninety-five.    Saint-Saëns went on to live an active life, filling an important rôle in the musical life of France--as performer, composer, author, spokesman, and scholar.  He was peripatetic--researching Handel manuscripts in London, conducting concerts in Chicago and Philadelphia, visiting Uruguay and writing a hymn for their national holiday, and vacationing in the Canary Islands.  He celebrated seventy-five years of concertizing in August of 1921 in his eighty-sixth year, and died a few months later.

        Perhaps his most well-known and successful work is his opera, Samson et Dalila, one of a dozen.  However, other works vie for that honor, for he was a most prolific composer, working in almost every genre common at that time.  Despite this versatility he perhaps did his best work in the traditional Classical models--symphonies, concertos, chamber music, and sonatas.  Symphony No. 3 (1886), the so-called “organ” symphony, was his last symphony, but only one of a large number of works for orchestra.  He composed symphonic poems, suites, concertos, marches, and dances--dozens of them.   Calling for a large orchestra, including two pianos and a large organ, Symphony No. 3 is heard as two large movements, but really is in four, with the first two and last two movements connected and heard respectively as one.  One will clearly hear in this work two of Saint-Saëns’ trademarks: a repetitive rhythm that dominates a movement, and his gift for lovely, sensuous melody.  He was a gifted melodist, and compared his talent with the natural fecundity of a fruit tree.  This you will hear in the lush second movement (second half of the first continuous section).  The initial entry of the organ often surprises folks, so be prepared.  The spectacular sonic combination of the fortissimo organ and the percussive pianos juxtaposed on the large orchestra is particularly felicitous, and is a triumph of Romantic orchestral imagination (Richard Strauss wasn’t the only game in town in this regard).  All in all, this symphony is characteristic of much of Saint-Saëns’ work: not necessarily profound, but crafted with great skill, innate musicianship, and typically Gallic in its clarity of expression and form.  And, it must be said--almost always immensely appealing.

--Wm. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan