By Dale Gedcke
Don’t miss the majestic “Symphony No. 3 with Organ” by Saint-Saëns, performed by the Oak Ridge Community Orchestra at 2 p.m. Saturday May 17, in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church. This is probably the most impressive symphony that one can find. It is unique because of the dominant role played by the organ, especially in the finale, where it builds the foundation for a glorious finish.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921) composed his third symphony at the pinnacle of his career when he was in his early 50s. The story of his life is as remarkable as the content of this symphony. Trained on the piano from a very early age, his first public performance came at the age of five, when he accompanied a Beethoven violin sonata. At 10, he played his first public recital, featuring works by Handel, Kalkbrenner, Hummel, and Bach. As an encore, Saint-Saëns offered to play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory.
Starting from that young age, he developed his skills as an accomplished organist and an acclaimed composer. His passion for the characteristics of the organ is obvious in the Third Symphony. Saint-Saën’s life and composing styles spanned the eras from Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven all the way up to the beginning of the jazz age. He is probably best known for “Danse Macabre,” “The Carnival of the Animals,” and “The Organ Symphony.” However, there are numerous other compositions to his credit, including an opera, and even a play. Saint-Saëns was a multi-faceted intellectual, with expertise in geology, archaeology, botany, acoustics, and mathematics.
The Third Symphony was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in England, and the first performance was given in London on May 19, 1886, at St James’s Hall, conducted by the composer. After the death of his friend Franz Liszt on July 31, 1886, Saint-Saëns dedicated the work to Liszt’s memory.
Aside from including a piano and organ, “Symphony No. 3” is unique in its form. From the Mozart and Beethoven eras, symphonies had specific rules concerning form and style. Saint-Saëns adopted the concept of four movements, but combined the first two into his Movement I, and the second two into Movement II. Furthermore, Saint-Saëns builds on the foundation of the traditional symphony, while expanding it to a whole new level of texture, style, and impact.
The first movement begins with a slow softness that belies the excitement that will follow. After eight measures, a pizzicato phrase on the bass strings and interjections from the English horn foretell the change to a faster pace. The Allegro Moderato commences with a running sixteenth-note pattern in the strings that forms the foundation and undercurrent for the entire first half of Movement I. A melodic theme develops in the woodwinds and French horns, building in intensity across the entire orchestra until the climax is reached. A dénouement follows, with the melodic sound becoming ever softer, until the end of the first half of the movement is signaled by a repeat of the pizzicato in the bass strings, and finally a brief fermata.
The organ introduces the second half of the first movement with soft tones, leading into a beautifully flowing melody. This slow melody is fully developed among the organ, strings, and French horns, with occasional support from the trombones. Then, it yields to a lighter and faster melody in the violins. A pizzicato pattern in the bass strings again signals an impending change, and the slow, flowing melody returns with greater intensity. Finally, the second half reaches its conclusion with soft tones from the organ, supported with slowly changing chords from the strings, and a final fermata leaving just the soft sounds of the organ.
The second movement opens with a vigorous 6/8 Allegro Moderato tempo that telegraphs the strong motion that will characterize the rest of the symphony. The entire orchestra becomes fully engaged. At Presto, the context changes abruptly and the piano suddenly appears. This section is fast and furious. The pattern of the melody changes several times, and ends at a brief fermata. Next, Saint-Saëns repeats the Allegro Moderato and Presto sections, while developing the texture with embellishments from different instrumentation. Early in the repeated Presto, there is a strong counter-melody from the trombone section. Finally, the piano introduces the brief transition to a softer theme in the violins, and the completion of the first half of the second movement is marked by a brief fermata.
The organ announces the start of the intense and majestic last half of the second movement with a startlingly sonorous C-major chord. The piano adds its sparkle, and the trumpets contribute scintillating fanfares. Twice, Saint-Saëns offers a brief respite with a lighter, fast melody from the woodwinds and French horns. But, each time, the brass sections return with a vengeance. Finally, the intensity builds to the conclusion, with no instrument in the orchestra left underutilized. After the final, saturating, C-major chord, the silence is deafening.
To enjoy this impressive symphony, join the concert on Saturday, May 17, at 2 p.m. in the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church of Oak Ridge, on the corner of the Oak Ridge Turnpike and LaFayette Drive. Admission is free. But, modest donations at the door to support the orchestra’s routine operating expenses will be appreciated.
The Oak Ridge Community Orchestra, or ORCO, is a 501(c)3, nonprofit, volunteer organization. Anyone wishing to regularly participate in the orchestra is encouraged to contact Personnel Manager Cyndi Jeffers at [email protected]. Usually, we can accommodate additional string players, and occasionally there are openings in the brass, woodwind, and percussion sections. The orchestra welcomes experienced musicians of all ages. The Oak Ridge Community Orchestra is a rewarding venue for instrumentalists who enjoy playing for an appreciative audience, with music ranging from Baroque through Classical to Contemporary. For more information about the ORCO, visit www.OakRidgeCommunityOrchestra.com.
Dale Gedcke is ORCO publicity manager.