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Composed: 1886

Length: c. 34 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, crash cymbals, triangle), piano (four hands), organ, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 14, 1935, Pierre Monteux conducting

About this Piece

The French composer Charles Gounod is said to have referred to Saint-Saëns as the French Beethoven. Such a judgment, had Gounod indeed been moved to utter it, would have been a clear case of wishful thinking or self-delusion, or both. At the time the statement was supposed to have been made—the 1880s—the French had never been, nor were they ever destined to become, symphonists in the Classical sense. After all, a country whose musical tastes inclined strongly to operatic lavishness rather than to concert-hall sobriety was not likely to produce a Haydn, Mozart, or a Beethoven. That it spawned a Berlioz seems only to upset the country’s musical image, but of course the dazzlingly flamboyant Hector was no Classical symphonist in the Austro-German mold.

Nor was Camille Saint-Saëns, although, given his conservative musical outlook, his prodigious creativity, and his superior craftsmanship, he was well equipped to follow in that line. Even so, his remarkable adeptness for melodic invention, for the elegant line, and for brilliant orchestration, all of which served him so well in dozens upon dozens of works large and small, could contribute little to his becoming a Beethovenian symphonist.
But why labor Gounod’s point? Saint-Saëns wrote five Saint-Saëns symphonies, none of them suggesting its creator thought himself an heir to the Bonn master’s throne. In reality, for his Third Symphony and for his symphonic poems, Saint-Saëns owed his largest debt to Liszt, since it is the Hungarian composer’s method of thematic transformation and the cyclical use of the transformed material throughout a given piece that the Frenchman zealously appropriated.

For the first performance of his Third Symphony in 1886 by the London Philharmonic Society, for which it was composed, Saint-Saëns indicated in a written analysis that the work, though divided into two parts, included practically the traditional four symphony movements.

The Symphony begins with a slow, Wagnerish (Tristan und Isolde) introduction, after which the restless Allegro first theme is announced in the strings; this is the motif that appears in transformations throughout the work—and one that is strongly suggestive of the first theme of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. The organ appears for the first time in the contemplative Adagio, while the piano enters the Symphony’s scene in the assertive scherzo, which, in Saint-Saëns’ scheme, is at the beginning of the second movement. The finale is built upon yet another of the many transformations of the first movement’s main theme, here made majestic by the organ’s mighty support, and the exceedingly attractive composition ends with a brilliant massing of orchestral forces.

—John Henken