Saint-Saëns: Fantasy in E-flat major

We may know him mostly as the composer of Samson et Dalila and Carnival of the Animals, but Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) belongs squarely in the grand line of French organist-composers that includes such worthies as Franck, Fauré, Widor, Vierne, Dupré, and Messiaen. Despite an enormous musical gift—in some ways he rivaled even Mozart—Saint-Saëns matured into a deeply conservative composer who was sometimes accused of elevating technique over inspiration. That Oscar Wilde of music criticism Hector Berlioz, ever handy with the pithy put-down, quipped: “He knows everything, but lacks inexperience.”

Saint-Saëns served as organist of Paris’s La Madeleine from 1858 through 1877. Given such a long tenure playing one of Europe’s most imposing organs, one might think that the prolific Saint-Saëns would have created an enormous catalog of organ works—but in fact his output was rather modest. It has been pointed out that the bulk of his solo organ playing at La Madeleine was improvisatory, which accounts for not only the paucity of organ compositions but also for most of them dating either before or after his La Madeleine years.

The Fantasy in E-flat major was Saint-Saëns’s first published organ work, written in 1857 for the restored organ at Saint-Merri, where he had been organist since 1853. Despite its youthful provenance the well-structured piece made an excellent impression in an organ culture that was still characterized by the flamboyant, decadent, and downright tacky organ playing so decried in early nineteenth-century France. Critic Henri Blanchard found the Fantasy to be “serious, elegant and religious, all at the same time” while questioning whether or not it contained much in the way of “fantasy.”

The Fantasy opens with an extended free-form section in which undulating chords trace out decidedly chaste melodic lines over long-held tones in the pedal. That gives way to an Allegro di molto e con fuoco, finger-bending virtuoso fireworks in a three-part form that includes a short central fugue, the whole ending in a blaze of rich chords designed to exert the organ’s maximum lung capacity.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.