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  • Chris Anderson

Saint-Saëns The Organ Symphony

The Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, by Camille Saint-Saëns, often referred to as the "Organ Symphony," is renowned for its inclusion of a pipe organ as a prominent instrument within the symphony, particularly in the final movement. This makes it one of the few symphonies to feature the organ as a solo instrument.


  • Historical Context:

    • The "Organ Symphony" was composed in 1886 during a period when Saint-Saëns was at the height of his creative powers. This symphony is one of his most famous and enduring works.

  • Title and Instrumentation:

    • The symphony is often called the "Organ Symphony" because of its prominent use of the pipe organ. It's scored for a large orchestra that includes two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, strings, and of course, the pipe organ.

  • Structure:

    • The symphony consists of five movements, which is a departure from the standard four-movement symphonic structure:

    • I. Adagio - Allegro moderato: The symphony begins with a dramatic and mysterious introduction, leading into the main theme of the movement.

    • II. Poco adagio: This is a lyrical and expressive movement featuring strings and woodwinds. It provides a contrast to the more robust outer movements.

    • III. Allegro moderato - Presto: This is a scherzo movement, known for its rhythmic energy and playful character.

    • IV. Maestoso - Allegro: The fourth movement is a powerful and majestic section that serves as a prelude to the famous finale.

    • V. Finale - Allegro: The grand finale is where the organ takes centre stage, creating a sonic spectacle. The symphony concludes with a thrilling and triumphant crescendo.

  • Cyclic Structure:

    • The symphony incorporates a cyclic structure, meaning that themes from earlier movements are revisited and reworked in later movements. This contributes to the symphony's unity and coherence.

  • The Organ's Role:

    • The pipe organ, typically placed in an elevated position at the back of the orchestra, is used both as a solo instrument and to enhance the orchestral texture. Its use in the final movement is particularly notable for its ability to create a massive, awe-inspiring sound.

  • Reception and Impact:

    • The "Organ Symphony" was premiered in London in 1886 and received with great enthusiasm. It remains one of Saint-Saëns' most celebrated works and is considered one of the masterpieces of the Romantic era.

  • Influence on Organ Music:

    • Saint-Saëns' symphony played a crucial role in revitalising interest in the pipe organ as a concert instrument. It helped establish the organ's prominence in the orchestral setting.

  • Organist's Skill:

    • The organ part in the "Organ Symphony" is technically demanding and requires a skilled organist. The solo passages, particularly in the final movement, are a test of virtuosity and power.

  • Majestic and Dramatic:

    • The symphony as a whole is characterised by its grandeur, dramatic contrasts, and lyrical beauty. The juxtaposition of the organ's might with the orchestra's lush melodies makes for a breathtaking sonic experience.


Camille Saint-Saëns' Symphony No. 3, the "Organ Symphony," remains a beloved and iconic work in the classical music repertoire. Its incorporation of the organ and its overall grandeur make it a standout piece, celebrated for its fusion of Romantic expression and powerful orchestration.

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