Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 has so many distinct and wonderful flavors, it just amazes me. And the first movement is so vibrant, unexpected, cinematic. The second movement utterly transports me.

Being haunted by music sounds like something I should be writing about in late October, but I think it will still work. And there’s no better way to describe the hold that Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 has on me right now. Perhaps it’s the spooky intermittent appearance of the organ, as well. The piece is commonly referred to as “the Organ Symphony,” although the organ only appears briefly in the second movement, and in full force in the fourth movement, and then, oh, boy, how it appears, all fortissimo and heart-stopping and full-throttle. Very entertaining to observe in concert halls, when the organ pipes, the bigger the better, are situated behind the back center terrace seating (budget prices for a reason). If you, as the patron observing from a safe distance, know what’s coming, you can watch unsuspecting patrons rocket right out of their center terrace seats when those first chords of the fourth movement sound. Great fun.

But what I want to wax lyrically about today are the first and second movements of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. So incredible. Readers, please, do both of us a favor and listen to at least half of it. And if you really, really don’t have much time, go straight to the second movement. Well, that said, if you’re a person who dozes off during slow movements, no matter how achingly beautiful they are, never mind. Listen to the first movement. It rocks.

Camille Saint-Saëns is such a great composer. I’ve written about how deeply affecting I find his music here. I’ve always been a fan of his “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” and then there’s the delicious “Dance Macabre” and his Carnival of the Animals (I’m going to guess you’ve heard “The Swan” even if you don’t know it by name. It’s very popular. My dance readers will recognize it as the music for “The Dying Swan”).

But today is about his Symphony No. 3. This is a symphony with so many distinct and wonderful flavors, it just amazes me. And the first movement is so vibrant, unexpected, cinematic. The second movement (which begins around 10 minutes into the video below) utterly transports me. I’ll say no more.

And now. As you might know from some of my previous music essays, I always like to mix my classical music musings in with my fiction, and this is no exception. If you have no interest in reading the excerpt, easy enough done, and you can just walk away right now, and I won’t be offended in the least. But if you want to go ahead and read my fiction excerpt, here you go. It’s from an earlier novel that might or might not make it all the way to the publishing finish line. Kye is my narrator. This is a flashback scene, ten years earlier when she was 13, a very intense, spiritual, musical girl who had a breakdown of sorts. Back from a residential treatment facility she’s trying to put her life back together. Which once again includes music.

If I were you, I’d listen to the music first, then read. For the ultimate sensory experience, I’d suggest reading while listening to the second movement.

Life recommenced, slowly but surely. She told her parents she wanted her music back. All of it. Her father kept apologizing, saying they’d just been trying to do the right thing by taking it away. She understood then, just how afraid of her and her instability they’d all been. And, in truth, the instant she came back to her music—starting with Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, the “Organ Symphony”—it was like a hit of narcotics. Except not the kind they’d used to sedate her, “improve” her. The music sent the natural endorphins stirring, exploding within her, bathing her, soothing her. It was like in The Wizard of Oz, the black and white world Dorothy didn’t question until the moment she opened her Kansas door in the Land of Oz, and color met her eyes. So much color. Tears of relief, of joy, flooded her eyes, and she sat there and wept and smiled through the entire first movement. As for the second movement, slow and tender and almost unbearably sweet, it tore through her. Purged her. Cleansed her. Made her think there was, after all, something beautiful in the world worth living for.

How did the movement work its magic? What was it that was so piercingly sweet? Was it in a minor key? Perhaps the way there were two voices, the violins up high and the horns lower. The organ chords giving you the sense of church, of security within divine worship. But there was something else. Almost a searching motif, the first violins on a quest, the lower strings a haunting counterpoint beneath them. The poignancy of it all was everything. It was simply everything, every tender hope she would never dare put into words for fear of having it all dashed. It was everything she’d lost, gathered together, cradled in the arms of a benevolent, celestial force, handing it all back to her, if only for as long as the music played.

The end of the movement was a six-note descent motif. First the woodwinds. The violins repeated. Winds and brass. Strings. How to explain the deliciousness of the minor key, something a non-classical music person might say “that’s so depressing-sounding” about? Maybe this was what her father had heard, and thought it too funereal, with the organ in the background. But it was perfect. It was all so beautiful and grand and noble and full of flavor, she could only sit there and cry through it and, paradoxically, feel more uplifted, transported, welcomed back, than she had in a long, long time.

I hope Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony haunts you. In the nicest of ways, mind you.

Republished with gracious permission from The Classical Girl (2013). 

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The featured image is “Saint Cecilia Playing the Organ” (oil painting completed between 1600 and 1699) by Justus Sustermans, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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