Symphony No 3 in C minor Op 78 (Camille Saint-Saëns)
Symbols of Light and Darkness in Saint-Saëns’s Symphony in C Minor ‘Avec Orgue’ Op. 78
by Marco Bellasi
Camille Saint-Saëns composed his most renowned symphonic work, his symphony no 3 in C minor op. 78 ‘Avec Orgue’, in 1886 for a commission by the London Philharmonic Society; the first performance was conducted by Saint-Saëns himself in London at St. James’s Hall that same year. The work is dedicated to Franz Liszt, surely an inspiration to Saint-Saëns as well as an important mentor of his music, who happened to die a couple of months after the symphony was completed. The symphony is quite unusually composed of two movements rather than the classic four, although the four-movement structure is respected in the way that the two movements are each subdivided into two sections. Saint-Saëns justified this decision by stating that his object was, ‘To avoid the endless resumptions and repetitions which more and more tend to disappear from instrumental music under the influence of increasingly developed musical culture.’ In the first movement, the composer opts to use the second theme area in the recapitulation as a bridge to lead to a short slow section that effectively takes the place of the conventional symphonic slow second movement. In the second movement, the bridge that links the first section, in the character of a scherzo and trio, to the second section, in the character of a finale, contains a new theme, which will be used at the beginning and later on during the finale section.
The most apparent feature of this symphonic masterpiece is surely the use of the organ, which is combined with orchestral forces at full capacity, and also the use of a piano in the place of the harp, which creates an overwhelming effect of French grandeur, especially in the finale. We must, though, completely agree with the first reviewer of The Times, who expressed his admiration for the work by writing:
M. Saint-Saëns is a master of his craft and, what is more, he makes that mastery subservient to the expression of a poetic idea.
In fact, looking at the work in depth we find that the outer grand appearance of the symphony is balanced by more intimate moments, such as the first quiet entrance of the organ in the slow section of the first movement. This is representative of a personal search by the composer in this work for beauty, poetry and goodness. We can unveil even more of this deep-felt, almost private side of the symphony by giving an insight to the meaningful process that Saint-Saëns uses to build its main themes.
Saint-Saëns uses two recurring motifs throughout the symphony; they are the foundations on which all of the themes of the symphony are built. These two motifs don’t come from his creative invention but are symbols that he inherited from the tradition of Western music; they are historically associated with the concepts of light and darkness. These motifs are derived from two medieval plain-chants; they are actually an extraction of four notes from the beginning of each plain-chant. The first motif, associated with darkness, comes from the Dies Irae (Day of wrath), the second, associated with light, is the Lucis Creator Optime (Creator of light). The symphony can be seen as a long reflection on these two musical motifs and their traditional symbolical meanings. The opposition and clash in the symphony of these two motifs, followed by a gradual unification of the two in the finale, seems like a musical metaphor of what we need to go through in our lives as human beings in order to reach enlightenment.
Figure 1 Dies Irae
Figure 2 Lucis Creator Optime
Figure 3 Motifs for darkness (Dies Irae) and light (Lucis Creator Optime)
The symphony opens with an atmosphere of desolation, from a descending chromatic passage in the strings, the symbol of light emerges in the oboe solo, except that it is transported to the minor key and broken before its resolution to the fourth note. Here, faith in life seems unanswered and pointless, the symbol of darkness takes over to give shape to the first terrifying theme, born from the technique of the string tremolos (tremolo in Italian meaning literally: ‘to tremble’), and probably inspired by the treatment of the Dies Irae motif at the beginning Schubert’s unfinished symphony.
Figure 4 Saint-Saëns, Symphony no 3 in C minor (Organ Symphony), first movement, Allegro moderato: tremolo version of Dies Irae motif
Darkness seems to prevail in the first section of the first movement, although traces of light can be found in the second theme, which is in F major. In the slow second section of the first movement, the gorgeous theme that can be heard just after the first subtle entrance of the organ is built entirely on the symbol of light. Although the symbol does not manifest itself here in its complete form at the start, the overall context in the major mode and the continuous repetitions of its first three notes create an atmosphere of hope and relief from all the drama we heard before. Finally, after three incomplete statements, the symbol reveals itself for the first in the symphony time in its completed four-note form.
Figure 5 Saint-Saëns, Symphony no 3, first movement, Poco Adagio: Lucis Creator Optimae motif
This gradual build up towards a revelation of the symbol of light reminds us of a similar treatment that Mozart gave this motif in his last symphony; the Jupiter symphony in C major, K 551. In the Jupiter symphony, Mozart fully revealed this motif in its complete form only in the finale, but as shown in Figure 6, the theme had already been presented in a disguised or incomplete form and used in the preceding three movements.
Figure 6 Mozart’s treatment of the symbol of light in his Jupiter symphony in C major, K 551, gradually building up towards a complete statement in the finale
After this lovely moment of recollection, at the beginning of the second movement II, Saint-Saëns takes us back to the drama of the beginning of the first movement; the strong resemblance of the scherzo theme, with its tremolos, to the first theme of the first movement surely cannot be missed. The symbol of darkness soon re-emerges, along with an actual part of the theme from the first movement in the winds, as a kind of sarcastic and devilish laughter.
Figure 7 Saint-Saëns, Symphony no 3, second movement, bar 17; part of the theme from the first movement is repeated, as a kind of devilish laughter
Variations of the two musical symbols can be found throughout the scherzo and trio; the outcome is that in the bridge that links the trio of the scherzo to the finale section the symbol of light now emerges more clearly than ever, as the head of a new theme. This new theme is used as the subject of a fugato; an atmosphere of inner happiness pervades the air and leads directly to the grand entrance of the organ, which marks the beginning of the finale section.
Figure 8 Saint-Saëns, Symphony no 3, last bars of the fugato before the finale section; the theme of the fugato derives from the Lucis Creator Optime theme
The finale opens, as mentioned already, with a grand statement by the organ, while the rest of the orchestra keeps on repeating the theme from the previous section, shown in Figure 8, except this time forte and heavily accented.
Just a few bars later, the strings and piano announce perhaps the best-known theme of the entire symphony, soon picked up by the organ in its full power. This theme is so popular that it was recently used in the Hollywood movie Babe, is about a little pig’s struggle to be loved and respected by mankind. The theme is built from the symbol of darkness, now wearing a completely new luminescent gown, converted as it is to the major mode, so as to to signify that light has finally won and has converted darkness into beauty and glory; fear and anguish have been converted to faith and hope.
Figure 9 Saint-Saëns, Symphony no 3, finale; Dies Irae motif is now transformed to a symbol of light and hope
Another characteristic worth mentioning about this symphony is that although it sits firmly, as we have seen, in the great symphonic tradition of the past it also reflects the convictions that Saint-Saëns had for the future of the symphonic genre. We have already seen his personal take on the structure and architecture of the symphony; we could add the rhythmical displacement of the themes, especially for the first theme of the first movement and the trio in the scherzo section in the second movement. This displacement does in some way anticipate what the composers of the next generation, such as Stravinsky, would do to their melodies.
- Organ concert 2 Jul 2016, 7:30 p.m.
- Winter Concert 2003 30 Nov 2003, 7:30 p.m.
- Winter Concert of French Music 1 Dec 1996, 7:30 p.m.
- Summer Concert 1986 13 Jul 1986, 7:30 p.m.