Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saint Saens: Third Symphony (the "Organ" symphony), Paul Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Saint-Saens knows everything, but he lacks inexperience.
--Hector Berlioz

It's safe to say that Camille Saint-Saens' life was far more interesting than his music.
James Levine and the Berliner Philharmoniker
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)
Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 "Organ"
Dukas: L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice)
Deutsche Grammophon, 1987
He was a true polymath: a musical prodigy, a scientist, a philosopher, a travel writer, a poet and a composer. He lived a life filled with tragedy: when Saint-Saens was in his early forties, his two-and-a-half-year-old son died in a fall from the balcony of his Paris apartment. Just six weeks later, his other son died of pneumonia at just seven months of age.

And three years after these incomprehensible tragedies, he walked out on his wife--in the middle of a vacation they were taking together! He left a note for her at their hotel and simply left.

Today we'll go over Saint-Saens' third and final symphony, widely known as the Organ Symphony. It's an enjoyable symphony with some interesting and unusual features, and it is probably the composer's best-known work. However, it is not a work I'd rank among my top classical music favorites.

I think most classical music critics would agree with me. My classical music bible, David Dubal's The Essential Canon of Classical Music, backhandedly refers to Saint-Saens' "slick, pseudo-Classical forms, and their refreshing neatness." And the liner notes accompanying this CD (which you would think would be a tad more promotional) contain this harsh gem: "...the symphony lacks the profundity of other 19th Century masterpieces."

Last, we'll also go over a few listener notes for the other work on this CD, Paul Dukas' forgettable The Sorcereror's Apprentice.

Listener notes for Saint-Saens' Third Symphony:
1) This symphony has an unusual structure, with just two movements rather than the more typical four. And yet the two movements have a substructure that roughly corresponds to a traditional four-movement symphony: the first movement has two primary parts, and the second movement begins with a Scherzo (albeit a highly unusual one, see below) and ends with a finale. Thus this work could easily be seen and heard as a four-movement symphony.

2) Another (somewhat) unusual feature: this symphony has an introduction lasting more than a minute. It doesn't add much to the work in my opinion, and a greater composer would consider the intro to be filler and strip it out. Beethoven, for example, never wrote symphonies with superfluous features like this.

3) That said, Saint-Saens can still write some darn good brass parts. Two examples: 4:30-4:50 in the first movement, and much of Track 4 (the second portion of the second movement).

4) The last minute of the first movement sounds like background music to a TV drama--something you'd hear on The Avengers perhaps.

5) You might ask, after ten minutes of this symphony, where the heck is this organ everybody's talking about? It makes a very quiet entrance in Track 2 (the third part of the first movement), but wait....

6) Track 2 is moving and emotional, and strangely, when I'm listening to this part of the symphony, I have this powerful feeling that I'm my younger self, at about age 8, sitting in church, and about to stand up and sing a hymn accompanied by our church's old $800 warbling electric organ. It's simply amazing how music can have such a powerful sensory force that it can literally transport you elswhere (or elsewhen).

7) I particularly like the Scherzo movement, with its quick tempo, shocking minor key and even more shocking pick-up-note-based motifs. I do feel like this portion of the symphony cribs stylistically from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

8) And then we have a piano? Listen at the 1:36 mark in the second movement (Track 3). I thought this was an organ symphony!

9) I told you to wait for the organ, and I hope when you hear the huge entrance it makes in the finale (at the opening seconds of track 4), the wait was worth it. All I could say was whoa. Brainsplitting.

Listener notes for Dukas' L'Apprenti Sorcier (The Sorceror's Apprentice):
1) A couple of words on this forgettable work. I don't understand why it's included on this CD, other than to make buyers feel less ripped off by buying a CD that only has 47 minutes of music on it (without Dukas' work included, this CD would be only 36 minutes long). But why not include another work by Saint-Saens? Ah, that would probably require extra effort to record another symphony, wouldn't it? Much easier to drop in some unrelated recording that's already made and sitting on file somewhere.

2) If it weren't for Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, and the famous animated film Fantasia,this work would be utterly forgotten by our culture by now. It's interesting how an icon of pop culture can overwhelm and co-opt a work like this, isn't it?

3) Finally, somebody clearly placed a microphone too close to the conductor during the recording of this work, giving listeners the distinct pleasure of hearing conductor James Levine muttering, grunting and groaning on a few places in this work (most notably at 6:03-6:30 and 8:00-8:11). Given his fashion proclivities for bad hair and worse glasses, I bet it would be fun to watch him bouncing and caterwauling all over the podium during a live performance.

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Walter Rimler said...

I enjoyed your column. As for agreeing with you, I won't argue about the Saint Saens work. It's imperfect and only parts of it are inspired. One either loves it or doesn't. But Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is brilliant from start to finish in form, harmony, melody, and especially orchestration.

Daniel said...

Hi Walter, thanks for the feedback. I guess that's what makes it a market, eh? De gustibus non est disputandum.


Elizabeth said...


I know this is quite after the fact, but I just stumbled onto this blog via Casual Kitchen. I love listening to and thinking about classical music, too, and am enjoying reading through your reviews of the pieces and the recordings.
Re: this post, I just wanted to clarify out that Saint-Saens' 3rd symphony is not a symphony for organ, but a symphony with organ - so the fact that it doesn't show up much in the score until the second movement is not an error, as it's not meant to be a solo instrument, but rather an addition to the standard instrumentation of the symphony.
But hey - when it does finally show up - wow, does it ever do a fantastic job. There's nothing quite like those strong opening organ chords!