SAINT-SAENS Symphony No. 3



Camille Saint-Saëns (October 1835 – December 1921)

Composed In



37 minutes


3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, double bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, piano (4 hands), organ, and strings


A symphony for which Saint-Saëns said, “What I have here accomplished, I will never achieve again.” His Third Symphony, also his last symphonic work, has a unique arrangement of four movements in an interlocking pattern of two-plus-two. It also offers virtuosic piano passages, brilliant orchestral writing, as well as a wide range of atmospheres – from quiet mystery to cathedral grandeur. He dedicated the work to Franz Liszt after the death of Liszt on 31 July 1886.


About the Composition

1: Adagio – Allegro Moderato – Poco Adagio

The first movement opens with a slow introduction in C minor, which begins quietly and mysteriously, underscored by the looming ominous series of plucked notes in cello and basses. The subsequent primary theme grows increasingly agitated and urgent, interspersed with brief sonorous lyrical motifs. The chromatic resolution into the new key of D flat major marks the quiet entry of the organ and the beginning of the Poco adagio section of the movement. Its quiet serenity comes from the strings’ plainsong melody and the organ’s counterpoint, which becomes more expansive as the woodwinds are gradually included. The dialogue between the organ and the strings recalls the primary theme of the movement before the recapitulation, bringing back the former quiet, darker and troubling melodies. The music dies away towards the end of the movement.

2: Allegro Moderato – Presto – Maestoso – Allegro

The second movement opens with an energetic string theme which later reappears in the Presto section of the movement, complete with very rapid virtuosic passages in the piano. The Maestoso is introduced by a full C major chord in the organ and the beginning of the accented contrapuntal passage, first in strings, then in woodwinds and brass. Rapid piano four-hands is heard at the beginning with the strings’ statement of the chorale, leading to a resolute declamation of the same chorale by the strings and the organ and brass fanfare echoes. What follows a polyphonic fugal passage and brief pastoral interlude is the climax of the symphony, at which the return of the primary theme and its variations culminate in triumphant C major.


Fun Facts about the Composer

  • He learned how to read at the age of 3, completed his first composition at 4, and spoke fluent Latin at 7.
  •  When Debussy applied to join the Institut de France, he did everything he could to block Debussy from the selection.
  • His name is pronounced as “San-Sohn(ce)”, with a hint of “s” at the end.
  • He was also proficient in botany, mathematics and geology.
  • He could not bear the thought of confronting his would-be bride with the idea of marriage, opting instead to write a letter to her brother asking if he would like to become his brother-in-law.

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