Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony: The work that could not be surpassed

On tonight's Full Works Concert, Jane Jones has the most inventive work from the pen of Saint-Saens.

You might remember the theme from Babe, that tearjerker of a film about a farmer and his pig. Or if you’re the right vintage maybe it’s the 1978 hit for Yvonne Keeley and Scott Fitzgerald, If I had words. Both owe their success to the French composer, Saint-Saens, and his last symphony. The thundering organ theme which dominates the finale is now so famous, that if you hear the rest of the symphony – largely without the 'King of Instruments' – it almost seems disconnected from the finale, but that fabulous big theme does crop up in various guises throughout the course of the Symphony. It is very clever stuff from the composer.

Camille Saint-Saens was an extraordinary child. Born in 1835, the youngster could apparently read and write by the time he was two, starting picking out original tunes on the piano a year later, and at the age of five he gave his first piano recital, making his formal debut as a concert pianist aged 11. It was at that debut that the young Camille offered to play any one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas as an encore – from memory! 

But music wasn’t his only talent. During his early life, he became expert in a host of areas from mathematics and astronomy to botany and archaeology. He was a gifted linguist and philosopher who wrote plays and poetry. There was little he couldn’t do…except win the prestigious Prix de Rome, which was the coveted award every young composer wanted. However, unlike some, Saint-Saens didn’t let that hold him back. His music was praised by the established composers who visited Paris in the 1850s, amongst them Liszt, Rossini and Clara Schumann. But some thought that the ease with which Saint-Saens composed was a handicap to his musical progression and development – basically, he had it too easy.

Despite his disappointments to win the top prize in Paris, success came as easily as composition for the young composer. By the time he was 22, he was organist at the Madeleine – the most prestigious job in all France, and his popularity led to an invitation to Britain in 1871 to play for Queen Victoria and study Handel’s manuscripts in the library at Buckingham Palace. In 1886, the Philharmonic Society commissioned his Third Symphony, premiered in London at the St. James’s Hall on 19 May, conducted by the composer himself. He later dedicated the work to his dear friend and supporter from those early days in Paris, Franz Liszt, who’s died in the summer of 1886. Of his third and final symphony, the composer said 'I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished I will never achieve again.'

It is indeed a remarkable symphony - one of the most technically advanced and sophisticated of the late 19th century, packed with innovations for the time, and without doubt the pinnacle of Saint-Saens achievements. He does away with the old structures and produces a work of two halves although you could say, with each half split in two, there is a nod to the old four movement convention. He introduces the piano as well as the organ into his symphony producing an ingenious work for four hands alongside the orchestra. The organ’s introduction is especially subtle, and beautifully crafted, whilst the theme itself – based on the old Latin plainchant Dies Irae – is revealed in both major and minor keys throughout the symphony until fully and thrillingly performed by the organist in the closing finale. 

This recurring theme, transformed over the course of the symphony was an idea first developed by Liszt, so the dedication by Saint-Saens to his friend is both personally touching and musically appropriate. Saint-Saens was known to champion form above expression in his music – and heavily criticised others who thought differently! - but if there was ever an example of how the two could combine to stunning and brilliant effect, it is this final symphony from Saint-Saens at his most expressive and inventive.