Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony No. 3, “Organ Symphony” (1886)

Camille Saint-Saëns and the Organ

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) at the organ
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) at the organ

Saint-Saëns was almost certainly the greatest organist of his time and among the greatest who has ever lived.  From 1857 until 1877 – from the age of 22 to 42 – he held the extremely prestigious position of organist at Paris’ most chic La Madeleine (Catholic) Church: a huge, Greek temple-like ediface in the 8th arrondisement, just south of the Place de la Concorde and east of the Place Vendôme.

L'église de la Madeleine (“The Madeleine Church”), circa 1895
L’église de la Madeleine (“The Madeleine Church”), circa 1895; the church’s full, formal name is L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, though in Paris it is known simply as La Madeleine. In its present incarnation, for which ground was broken in 1807, it was designed to look like an ancient Greek temple to glorify Napoleon and the French Army.

While Saint-Saëns could play anything he looked at (his sight-reading was as perfectly polished as any performance), his greatest skill as a performer was as an improviser.  At La Madeleine, he performed an extended improvisation every Sunday, an improvisation typically based on the plainchant melody featured in that day’s mass.  It was one of Saint-Saëns Sunday improvisations that prompted Franz Liszt to write in a letter to his friend Olga von Meyendorff that as an organist:

“Saint-Saëns is not merely in the first rank but incomparable, as [Johann] Sebastian Bach is a master of counterpoint.  No orchestra is capable of creating a similar impression; it is the individual communing with music rising from earth to heaven.” 

(Not that we need to be reminded, but this is no mere hack tossing critical huzzahs at Camille Saint-Saëns but Franz-freaking-Liszt [1811-1886], the greatest pianist of his time and among the very greatest to have ever pressed a key!)

Saint-Saëns’ legendary ability to evoke emotional reactions with his organ improvisations is well demonstrated by a request he once received from a member of the congregation, who asked him to play funeral music at her wedding because she wanted to cry during the ceremony.  According to Saint-Saëns, she told him that:

“as she had no natural instinct to cry, she counted on the organ to bring tears to her eyes.” 

We don’t know if Saint-Saëns was successful in this, but given that he told this story for years, we must assume that successful he was.

Camille Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 79, “Organ Symphony” (1886)


Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London in 1884.  Saint-Saëns had long been contemplating a return to the genre, as 25 years had passed since the publication of his Symphony No. 2 in A minor back in 1859.  

For the usually concise and facile Camille Saint-Saëns, his Third Symphony turned into a gargantuan, 37-plus minute work that kept him awake at night.  In February of 1886, when his publisher Durand inquired as to when he intended to be finished with the symphony, Saint-Saëns rather hysterically replied:

“You ask for the symphony; you don’t know what you ask.  It will be terrifying.  There will be much in the way of experiment in this TERRIBLE THING.” (Capitalization mine.)

He later said of composing the symphony:

“I gave everything to it I was able to give.  What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” 

The symphony received its premiere on May 19, 1886.  A little over two months later, on July 31, 1886, Franz Liszt died at the age of 74 in Bayreuth, Germany.  Saint-Saëns immediately dedicated the symphony “To the memory of Franz Liszt.”  It is a most appropriate dedication, and we know that Liszt would have been immensely pleased. …

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