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Featured Selection: The Organ Symphony

The MHS Review 376 Vol. 10, No. 16 • 1986

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David M. Greene


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Saint-Saens, who began tinkering with the form in 1848, when he was 15 years old, was probably French true symphonic composer of importance. Between 1848 and 1859 he attempted seven symphonies, completing four, of which he rejected two. Gounod and Bizet wrote their three during the same period, though none of them had much impact. (Bizet's was not played for 80 years.)

For a quarter of a century thereafter the symphony was virtually a dad issue in France. (Debussy had a try at one in 1880 but it remains unorchestated.) Oddly when the French symphony reached its brief high point, it owed not a little to Berlioz. He had impressed Liszt, who had written two programmatic symphonies (on Goethe's Faust and Dante's Divina commedia). Taking his cue from such devices as the so called fixed-idea theme in the Sympbonie fantastique, Liszt had further developed "cyclic" form in which thematic material of the initial part in various transformations becomes the spine of the whole work. It was this de­vice that most of the symphonists of the 1880s-Franck, Indy, Chausson, Lalo, and Saint-Saens adopted.

Saint-Saens' third (by his reckoning) and last symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and premiered in London May 19, 1886. It was meant to be dedicated to Liszt; the published score is inscribed to his memory, he having died that July 31. It is a grandiose work, calling for a very large orchestra, including two pi­anos and an organ (which is treated as part of the ensemble rather than as solo instrument ).

Schwann lists 15 recordings. This one is the second to appear in the MHS lists, the first (MHS 1232W ) involving the French Radiotelevision Orchestra under the late Jean Martinon with Marie-Claire Alain. The present version is in superb digital sound; the older one offers slightly constricted analog sonics but a bonus of the symphonic poems Danse macabre and Le rouet d'Omphale.

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