Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no.3 in C Minor was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London and was first performed there on 19th May 1886 with the composer conducting. The work was dedicated to the memory of Saint-Saëns’ friend Franz Liszt who died that year.
It is popularly known as the ‘Organ Symphony’ even though it is not a true symphony for organ. A better, more accurate way of describing the work would be as the composer himself described it: ‘a symphony for orchestra “avec” (“with”) organ’.
The organ symphony follows the normal four-movement structure and many recordings do break in this way but it was actually written in two movements, creating two pairs. In each pair, only the second movement features the organ.
On composing the work, Saint-Saëns said “I gave everything to it I was able to give. What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again”. The composer seemed to know it would be his last attempt at the symphonic form and he wrote the work almost as a type of ‘history’ of his own career; virtuoso keyboard passages, orchestral writing characteristic of the Romantic period, and the sound of a cathedral-sized pipe organ.
The first movement has a slow introduction, which then leads into the motto theme played on the strings. This theme undergoes a great many transformations as the work unfolds. The second subject is gentler. The material is worked out in classical sonata-allegro form and gradually fades to a quieter mood, ending with a series of plucked notes in the cello and bass. This is followed by slow soft sustained A flat notes in the organ, (the first time we hear it), resolving into the new key of D flat for the Poco Adagio section of the movement. This evolves as a beautiful dialogue between the organ and strings, recalling the main theme of the movement before the recapitulation.
The second movement opens with an energetic string melody, which gives way to a Presto version of the main theme, complete with rapid scale passages on the keyboard. The Maestoso (fourth movement) is introduced by the organ, then played by the strings. It is then taken back by the organ and played interspersed with brass fanfares. This last movement has a great deal of polyphonic writing and a brief pastoral interlude. This leads to the climax of the whole symphony characterised by a return to the introductory theme in the form of major scale variations. The lowest pedal notes of both the Poco Adagio and the Maestoso, played on the organ, are of almost inaudibly low frequency.
The main theme of the Maestoso (4th movement) was later adapted and used in the 1977 pop-song If I Had Words by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley. The song and the symphony were also used as the main theme in the 1995 film Babe.