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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.
Charles Camille Saint-Saëns

BORN: October 9, 1835. Paris, France

DIED: December 16, 1921. Algiers, Algeria
 
COMPOSED: April 1886. Dedicated “To the memory of Franz Liszt”

WORLD PREMIERE: May 19, 1886. The composer conducted a concert of the Philharmonic Society in Saint James’s Hall, London

US PREMIERE: February 19, 1887. Theodore Thomas and the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—August 1931. Pierre Monteux led. MOST RECENT—November 2015. Yan Pascal Tortelier conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, organ, piano (2-hands and 4-hands), and strings

DURATION: About 34 mins
 
THE MUSIC The composer Charles Gounod wrote this of his fellow Frenchman: “Monsieur Saint-Saëns possesses one of the most astonishing musical organizations I know of. He is a musician armed with every weapon. He is a master of his craft as no one else is. . . . He plays, and plays with the orchestra as he does the piano. One can say no more.” In marveling over Saint-Saëns’s talents, Gounod might have noted that his fellow Parisian was also a highly accomplished organist, a champion of forgotten earlier music and of contemporary composers, an inspiring teacher, a gifted writer, a world traveler, and an avid and informed aficionado of such disciplines as Classical languages, astronomy, archaeology, philosophy, and even the occult sciences.
 
He started piano lessons at the age of two and a half and embarked on composition and organ instruction at seven, by which time he was already performing Bach, Handel, and Mozart in public. He was opinionated in his musical tastes from the outset. In his memoirs, published in 1913, Saint-Saëns described his first reaction to the sound of an orchestra:
 
[My parents] took me to a symphony, and my mother held me in her arms near the door. Until then I had only heard single violins and their tone had not pleased me. But the impression of the orchestra was entirely different and I listened with delight to a passage played by a quartet, when suddenly, came a blast from the brass instruments—the trumpets, trombones—and cymbals. I broke into loud cries, “Make them stop. They prevent my hearing the music.” They had to take me out.
 
In 1846, when he was ten, he presented his formal debut recital at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, with a program that included piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven. The applause was resounding, so he topped off the event by offering to play any of Beethoven’s piano sonatas from memory, as an encore. “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience,” lamented Hector Berlioz.
 
He would live a good, long life, remaining active until his death at the age of eighty-six. It’s astonishing to think that he was born when Beethoven was still being mourned and died when Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was already being assimilated into the repertory. Fortunately for Saint-Saëns, he remained generally respected by musicians to the end. Some viewed him as a curious relic of antiquity, but those with open ears could hardly miss the fact that his style continued to develop practically until the day he died.
 
The last of Saint-Saëns’s completed symphonies (not counting early symphonies that lack opus numbers), the Third was composed at the behest of the Philharmonic Society of London. In August 1883 the orchestra’s secretary expressed the wish that Saint-Saëns might come to London the following year either to play one of his concertos, or to compose a new one and play it. Talk soon turned instead to the possibility of a new symphony. By March Saint-Saëns was far enough along in his planning to inform the London Philharmonic of the new symphony’s instrumentation (“there are no harps, happily”), that it would be cast in two movements, that the symphony would be difficult, and that one “aggravation” would be that the piano part would involve one player at first and two later. On May 18, 1886, Saint-Saëns wrote from London to his publisher, Auguste Durand: “We have sight-read the symphony. I was right: it is really terribly challenging.” But the premiere went well the next day, its prestige only augmented by the attendance of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Saint-Saëns’s multiple talents were on display since he appeared as the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto before assuming the role of conductor in the symphony. “The Symphony enjoyed a colossal success,” he reported. It was “spiced up by just enough opposition to make the success more intense.”
 
Immediately upon completing and premiering his new symphony Saint-Saëns decided to dedicate it to Franz Liszt, who was by then a grand old man of music. Saint-Saëns and Liszt qualified as a long-standing mutual admiration society. Liszt had staged the world premiere of Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila in 1877 in Weimar; the next year Saint-Saëns had presented an evening of Liszt’s symphonic poems in Paris; Saint-Saëns had even played through the draft of his new symphony when Liszt visited Paris in April 1886. But Liszt died that July 31, and when the Symphony appeared in print in November, it was dedicated to Liszt’s memory.
 
THE MUSIC The prominent use of the organ has earned this piece the nickname Organ Symphony. It is actually misleading since French composers of that time composed a good many pieces that were titled “organ symphonies”; these were not orchestral works at all but rather big-boned, multi-movement pieces for solo organ. Saint-Saëns recognized that requiring an organ could limit performance possibilities, since many concert halls lacked them, but he was perfectly content with the idea of a small organ being brought in for the occasion. He briefly considered allowing the use of a harmonium as an option, but after hearing the organ at the London premiere he told his publisher that such a substitution must be ruled out as insufficient.

Saint-Saëns wrote an analysis of his Third Symphony in which he explained its unorthodox structure: “This symphony is divided 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 Adagio, and the scherzo is connected by the same process to the finale. The composer has sought to avoid to some extent the interminable reprises and repetitions which more and more are tending to disappear from instrumental music under the influence of increasingly developed musical culture.” Surely Liszt’s symphonic poems served as the subtext to this last remark.
 
Following a brief and quiet Adagio introduction that sounds vaguely Wagnerian, the Allegro moderato is launched with a nervous theme that seems to have issued from the loins of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. This theme will generate a good deal of material in the course of the symphony, which displays the French fascination for thematic transformation, a procedure that had been firmly demonstrated by Berlioz and by the time of Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony was practically a norm in large-scale French compositions. The first four notes of this principal theme happen to correspond with the opening tones of the chant “Dies irae,” the Sequence from the Mass for the Dead—a haunted theme that had proved to be an obsession with Berlioz and Liszt. The Allegro moderato runs its course and segues into the Poco adagio, where the organ makes its first appearance, demurely enriching the orchestral texture. This beautiful slow movement seems at first veiled in ecclesiastical piety but is gradually overtaken by an almost Tristan-esque atmosphere of languorous passion.
 
The second movement begins with a scherzo paced in a temperate Allegro moderato, though strongly accented. We have two scherzo-with-trio alternations here, and it sounds as if the trio (the contrasting music heard between the scherzo’s outer sections) is about to commence for a third go-round, but the music takes on a suddenly different character when most of the lowest instruments in the orchestra intone what promises to be a fugue subject. Tension builds: The piano lets loose volleys of scales much as it had in the scherzo, while the orchestra builds in a general crescendo. Suddenly the proceedings grow hushed as the upper strings tentatively try out the fugue subject in canon, and as they come to rest the cellos and basses propose an unassuming phrase, playing pianissimo, the basses adding an edge by playing pizzicato. Their tones die away into nothingness. How can all this uncertainty possibly resolve?
 
The answer is simplicity itself: nothing more than a C major chord. And yet no C major chord has sounded as thrilling since Haydn used one, nine decades earlier, in his oratorio The Creation, to depict God’s illuminating the universe. Earlier, we heard the organ murmuring gently, but the C major chord it releases here dependably propels a fair percentage of the audience several inches off their seats.
 
The grandeur of the organ’s chords, alternating with the orchestra’s phrases, are not more extraordinary than the sound that follows: an elegantly shaped chorale played by the strings, its notes (derived from the nervous theme of the symphony’s opening movement) elaborated by sparkling arpeggios played by not one, but two pianos. The organ takes up the chorale, with the brass (abetted by timpani and cymbals) adding fanfares between its phrases. The promise of a fugue arises again, and its counterpoint is finally worked out at length, ingeniously dovetailing with a string melody so gorgeous that it seems plucked from an operatic love scene by Bizet or Gounod. Fleeting reminiscences of previous sections pass by until Saint-Saëns cranks up the tempo in the final pages to conclude in a blaze of C major majesty.—J.M.K.