Saint-SaŽns, Symphony 3 'Organ'. A short introduction with 15 musical examples.

In the Organ-Symphony (O.S.) Saint-SaŽns used the concept of thematic transformation which was developed by Berlioz and Liszt to create a musical unity in a rich variety to a musical themes.

There is a theme with a prominent presence in the 1st movement, it is the main idea that I will call the 'principal theme'. It is introduced in the 1st movement in minor, I will label it as 'principal theme-minor'. There are some major forms, that I will call 'principal theme-major'. By techniques (transposition or modulation, inversion, and retrograde), augmentation, diminution, and fragmentation.  Many melodies and motives are derived from both 'principal themes' and permeate the symphony in all the 4 movements.

When listening to the 'principal theme' of the first movement of the organ symphony many listeners will have a false rhythmic impression of the string-melody. They will hear the melody as notated in ex. 1, a. But it is its floating rhythm that makes the melody so fascinating. Experienced listeners should try to hear the melody as notated in ex.1, b. For the musicians the correct hearing is essential for the ensemble playing :
  • Many annotators of this symphony associate this theme with the Dies Irae, that famous old plainchant melody that was used by many composers in the romantic period in association to death.
    As everybody can hear: the first 4 notes are the same. Brahms should have said: 'Every ass can hear that.'
    But is that partial similarity enough to speak about a quote? From the 5th note all similarities end. Saint-SaŽns develops his melody in a chromatic way  that is so alien to the characteristic modal continuation of the Dies irae-melody (with bracket).
    My conclusion: these are two completely different melodic lines and there is not enough equality to speak about a Dies irae-quote.




    The symphony as a whole moves from the dark to the light, if you want to listen that way: from struggle to victory, a concept that Beethoven already liked. The tonality of the Organ Symphony moves from c minor (movements-1&3) to C major (movement-4=Finale). In the Finale in C major Saint-SaŽns makes use of the 'principal theme-major'. In this major form the melody has much more similarities with Gregorian chant than  the minor form has with he Dies irae. I will discuss the Gregorian element later.   Ex.3.


    The actual second movement is a beautifully crafted Poco adagio. It introduces the organ as a new colour in the orchestra. The organ plays the 2 introductory bars that fixe the new tonality D flat major. The rich sonority of the strings unisono playing pianissimo is magic. Saint-SaŽns could write a great melody. There is a striking similarity between the beginning of the melody and many Gregorian Alleluia chant-formulas. 

                                                                  Gregorian chant.

    A two part 'Inventio' for the strings in fact is a variation on the Poco Adagio tune:


    After this Inventio the music darkens. The 'principal theme-minor' sounds in triplets pizzicato in the celli and bassi, it is a reminiscence of the 1st movement:


    But the major is reestablished soon when the triplets undergo a role change when becoming the accompaniment of the great Adagio melody in the strings.

    The music comes to a close with a cadenza theme that makes use of the chromatic fraction of the 'principal theme-minor'. It has the attractive combination of sweet with a slight undertone of bitter:

    The 3d movement is a scherzo with the form Allegro moderato-Presto / Allegro moderato-Presto.
    The Allegro moderato-theme is based upon a selection of notes from of the 'principal theme-minor' if you want to believe it:

    But also the Presto is linked with some melodic reminiscences to the  'principal theme-minor' in a major-form:



    Is the finale commonplace? That's up to you! I like it. It is typical French. Don't search for any German depth that you will not find in it.

    It starts with a C major chord played on the organ. It is solemn and joyful. When you have a magnificent organ at your disposal it will be the overwhelming start of a movement in grandioso style. Woodwinds, horns and strings play a short fugato on a theme that Saint-SaŽns soon seems to forget but that you must keep in your mind because it will return. The first 7 notes have a striking feel of Gregorian chant, for instance an Alleluia:

                                                                        Gregorian chant.
    Then a new sound joins the orchestra, the grand piano is played four hands (ŗ quatre mains) with the delicate effect of  many small jingling bells. There is one piano player whose part in the whole symphony is restricted to these 8 bars!
    The piano part is the coloristic background of a melody with a melodic shape that resembles a Gregorian chant, again the mood is Alleluia:
                                                                      Gregorian chant.
    All of a sudden we are struck by the fact that this is a major form of the 'principal theme-minor', that we are listening to a grand design. This Alleluja-theme is restated by the organ, reinforced by forceful chords in the strings and with jubilant endings in the brass with cymbal clashes.

    A square fuga on the 'principal theme-minor' in its major form starts. Shostakovich would have liked the ta-ta-tam-ta-ta-tam rhythm:


    Woodwinds and horns play a phrase which seems to be a combination of an inversion of the 1st 3 notes of the 'principal theme-minor' with the 1st 3 notes or a a selection of notes of the 'principal theme-minor': 


    There is a beautiful singing theme played in canon by the 1st violins, the woodwinds and a solo-horn that sounds as an inspired Gregorian Alleluia:

                                                                     Gregorian Alleluia.
    Saint-SaŽns liked is beacuse he repeats it 12 times in different harmonic and instrumental colourings.

    A solemn fugato in the brass on the theme that you should not forget leads to a powerful symphonic climax:


    Many themes are resumed  and then all harmonic tension relaxes in one single C major with a mighty flourish of the brass and an impressive solo role for the timpani.


     ĄJawohl, und noch merkwŁrdiger ist, daŖ das jeder Esel gleich hŲrt.ď