In 1886, 35 years before his death, after completing his “Organ” Symphony, Camille Saint-Saëns was asked if he would ever write another one. He answered no, explaining, “With this work, I have given all I could.” On May 9 and 10, Jérémie Rhorer will conduct the majestic Symphony no. 3 in C minor, which the composer dedicated to Franz Liszt.
That same year, Saint-Saëns penned The Carnival of the Animals, making 1886 the year he would definitively go down in history. Ironically, this zoological fantasy was a humorous piece written for private performance.
The “Organ” Symphony officially marked the arrival of the French presence to the symphonic tradition—Franck, d’Indy, Widor and Chausson would follow—at a time when this style had largely been under the reign of German composers. To achieve a solid foothold in this grandiose repertoire, Saint-Saëns made innovative use of two keyboard instruments that had influenced him in his youth: piano (two and four hands) and the organ.
This opus had been written for the Royal Philharmonic Society of London, for which Saint-Saëns was paid what today is regarded as a paltry sum of 30 pounds sterling.
The organ is not used here to showcase virtuoso or solo passages, but to add colour, volume, texture and richness to the work, especially in its imposing final movement. The instrument makes a demure appearance, blending in perfectly, as if it had always been an integral part of the orchestra.
Fifty years after the work’s first performance in London’s St. James Hall, it was presented at the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal as part of the OSM’s first season.
There is an especially resonant echo to Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3 in the Maison symphonique, as it was performed for the inaugural gala concert of the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique in 2014, under the direction of Maestro Nagano. That performance was recorded on the Analekta label and won the 2016 Juno award for “Classical Album of the Year.”