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Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony




(b. 1965)


Psalmos, Concerto for Orchestra WORLD PREMIERE
   Vivacissimo (quarter note=160)
    Andante un poco rubato (half note=72)
    Allegro giocoso (half note=96)






Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, Organ
      Part I: Adagio. Allegro moderato
      Poco adagio
      Part II: Allegro moderato. Presto
    Maestoso. Allegro



Psalmos,Concerto for Orchestra

Timing: approx. 25 min.
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo and alto flute), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 3 clarinets (incl. E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, 2 bongo drums, cymbals a2, gong, marimba, snare dum, 4 tam-tams, 5 tom-toms, tubular bells, vibraphone, whip, xylophone, harp, celeste, piano, strings


Psalmos is receiving its world premiere this weekend.

Thierry Escaich was born in Nogent-sur-Marne, France on May 8, 1965. A virtuoso organist, he serves at the historic church of St. Étienne-du-Mont in Paris, where one of his predecessors was Maurice Duruflé. He is also an award-winning composer of more than a hundred works that have been performed internationally.

The composer calls Psalmos a symphonie concertante for orchestra.  

Writing for the British daily The Guardian, music critic Rian Evans recently described the music of Thierry Escaich as “César Franck or Fauré on speed.” This somewhat flippant formulation calls attention to two important aspects of the French composer’s style: first, that he reconnects with 19th-century traditions and second, that there is nothing “retro” about this orientation since he completely reshapes what he takes over. Escaich may bring back elements of tonality that had been almost banned from French music in recent decades, but he handles tonality in a highly original way, with a unique sense of harmony and vibrant, energetic rhythms.

More recent French composers who are frequently mentioned as having influenced Escaich include Ravel, Messiaen and Dutilleux; yet this virtuoso organist and improviser is equally steeped in the music of J.S. Bach. Psalmos, his new work written for the CSO, is based on chorale melodies familiar from the works of Bach (as well as other representatives of the German Lutheran tradition), but it takes those chorale melodies to places they have never been before.

The work opens with a solo flute playing “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Now come, Saviour of the Heathens”; the melody is based on the Gregorian hymn “Veni creator gentium”). Escaich had previously used this same chorale in his Evocation III for organ (2008), a work that, in the words of another British reviewer, did not handle his source material with “kid gloves,” and subjected it to “treatment that ranges from tender caresses to the aural equivalent of thwacking it with a blunt instrument.” The same description applies, to some extent, to the new piece as well: after the theme is introduced softly in a slow introduction, it receives a much more dramatic treatment in the ensuing “Vivacissimo.” After small fragments from the theme enter over an agitated repeated-note accompaniment, the chorale is presented in a sharply profiled rhythmic version by the trumpets and trombones. Then, a long, drawn-out decrescendo leads to a more lyrical statement of the chorale melody on the horn, punctuated by the magical sounds of the vibraphone, celesta, harp and piano. The music seems to “float away” at the end, connecting to the second movement, marked “Andante un poco rubato.” Intertwining declamatory melodies played by three solo strings (violin, viola, cello and, later, three cellos or three violas) prepare for “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“O sacred head, now wounded”), the principal chorale in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, played here by the woodwind choir and horns. The trumpets immediately respond with “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A mighty fortress is our God”). Both chorale melodies are treated very freely; their development culminates in a dramatic climax that subsides as the oboe brings back “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” A rhapsodic cello solo brings this movement to its close.

The third movement (“Allegro giocoso”) plays the role of the scherzo in this four-movement symphonie concertante. Over an excited ostinato in mixed meters played by the marimba and the vibraphone, we hear various chorale-like fragments until, finally, “Nun komm’” bursts forth one more time on violas and cellos accompanied by low winds and piano, followed by “Ein’ feste Burg” on trumpets. The ostinato gives way to a hymn-like statement of this most famous of Lutheran chorales, transitioning into the final Allegro, a colorful fantasy on the same melody. The work ends in a glorious tutti, with a unison C played in triple forte, reviving—and re-validating—a traditional closing gesture that nevertheless sounds very 21st century in this context.

—Peter Laki


Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, Organ

Timing: approx. 36 min.
Instrumentation: solo organ, 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals a2, triangle, bass drum, piano four-hands, strings


Saint-Saëns was born on October 9, 1835 in Paris; he died on December 16, 1921 in Algiers. He composed the Organ Symphony in 1886 and conducted the first performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on May 19, 1886.

Saint-Saëns voiced a complaint in 1871 that sounds very much like the grumbling of composers a century later:

Not so very long ago a French composer who was daring enough to venture onto the terrain of instrumental music had no other means of getting his work performed than to give a concert himself and invite his friends and the critics. As for the general public, it was hopeless even to think about them. The name of a composer who is French and still alive had only to appear on a poster to frighten everybody away. The chamber music societies, flourishing and numerous at the time, restricted their programs to the resplendent names of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn—and sometimes Schumann—as proof of their audacity.

If the complaint seems like those of today, so did the solution. In order to combat prejudice against contemporary French chamber music, Saint-Saëns and Fauré founded the Société Nationale de Musique, which was similar in purpose and activities to many composers’ organizations functioning today. Other leading members of the organization were César Franck and Édouard Lalo. The Society met with unexpected success. Not only was it responsible for the premieres of many fine new French compositions, but also it showed the public that such music was worthwhile. As a result, modern French music began to appear on other concert series. Before too many years had passed, the Society had 200 members, many of whom met regularly at Saint-Saëns’ house to discuss and play new music.

As the Society grew, so did its bureaucracy. In 1876 composers Vincent d’Indy and Henri Duparc were elected secretaries. D’Indy undertook the herculean task of putting the archives in order. Thus he became an important member of the Society’s administration. Once in this position of responsibility, he made a bold suggestion: that music by foreign composers be included in the Society’s concerts. Saint-Saëns was willing to allow music by Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Glinka, but he balked at the suggestion of the composer who really interested d’Indy: Wagner. Saint-Saëns understood that to start playing the music of this cult hero would be to return to the state of affairs the Society had been founded to remedy. He feared that the magnetic musical personality of Wagner would eclipse the works of the members. D’Indy, a devoted Wagnerian, was enraged. The ensuing rift between him and Saint-Saëns was never healed.

Their disagreements escalated over the succeeding years, and each enlisted allies. The proponents of d’Indy’s position were the composers most influenced by Wagner. They took as their leader César Franck. Franck had been a friend of Saint-Saëns and had dedicated his Quintet of 1880 to his colleague. But that piece also symbolized the rivalry between these two leading French composers: Franck’s work had been inspired by his passion for a particular woman, to whom Saint-Saëns was also attracted. Saint-Saëns heard rumors that Franck’s pursuit had been more successful than his own. His personal resentment of Franck fueled his professional jealousy: Franck had a circle of devoted disciples and students, while Saint-Saëns did not. And, a few years later, Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, which owed quite a lot to Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony, eclipsed its model in popularity.

Saint-Saëns understood that he was in the minority in the Society, and that those under the spell of Wagnerian aesthetics were both more numerous and more powerful than his own allies. Saint-Saëns resigned in 1886. He felt the Society had done its work. His departure, after 15 years as president, marked the end of an era.

The year 1886 ended an artistic era for Saint-Saëns as well. He conducted the premiere of the composition that was destined to be his last effort in the symphonic genre: his Third Symphony. In his remaining 35 years, he composed only a few incidental orchestral works (in addition to several works for soloist with orchestra). He turned his attention instead to the theater, writing seven operas, a ballet and incidental music to seven plays.

The Third Symphony (actually it was the composer’s fifth, since two youthful works were never numbered) is in many ways conservative. It looks backward to the heroic symphonies of Beethoven, and it all but ignores the new Wagnerian sounds that excited Franck and d’Indy. It was with no small sarcasm that composer Charles Gounod said, as Saint-Saëns mounted the podium to conduct the symphony, “There’s the Beethoven of France!”

The Organ Symphony was first heard in London. It had been written for the London Philharmonic, which managed to get it without paying a commissioning fee. Saint-Saëns had been invited to appear as guest conductor and piano soloist. He asked for a stipend of 40 pounds. The Philharmonic responded that it was a non-profit organization with limited funds. Saint-Saëns was offered an honorarium of 30 pounds plus the honor of writing a symphony for the occasion. Knowing that the orchestra was prestigious and that it was large, he agreed.

He dedicated the symphony to Franz Liszt, who died shortly after the premiere. Liszt’s style of orchestration is echoed in the symphony. In particular, Saint-Saëns took from the Hungarian composer’s tone poem Hunnenschlacht the idea of including an organ in the orchestra.

The symphony received splendid receptions at both its London and Paris premieres, but, apart for its influence on Franck, it had little subsequent impact on French music. Saint-Saëns understood that the Third Symphony represented a dead end. “I have given all that I had to give,” he wrote. “What I have done I shall never do again.”

KEYNOTE. The composer referred to himself in the third person in the extensive program note he provided for the London premiere:

This symphony is divided into parts, after the manner of Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and Sonata for Piano and Violin. Nevertheless, it includes practically the traditional four movements: the first, checked in development, serves as the introduction to the adagio, and the scherzo is connected, after the same manner, with the finale. The composer has thus sought to shun in a certain measure the interminable repetitions which are more and more disappearing from instrumental music. The composer thinks that the time has come for the symphony to benefit by the progress of modern instrumentation.

Saint-Saëns went on to list every instrument in the work’s large orchestra and then to give a detailed analysis of the symphony.

The first of the symphony’s two movements comprises an adagio (which Saint-Saëns called “plaintive”) which leads to an allegro moderato and, after a transition, to a full-fledged adagio (the composer described this section as “extremely peaceful and contemplative”). The second movement begins with the usual scherzo, complete with trio section. The second time the trio occurs, it becomes a transition (labeled “a struggle for mastery, ending in the defeat of the restless, diabolical element”) into the final section: a maestoso introduction (“triumph of calm and lofty thought”) to a fugal allegro. The organ helps delineate the implied four-part symphonic structure. It is silent in the first section, then enters at the start of the slow section. It is absent from the scherzo but marks the arrival of the finale with a massive C major chord.

Like Franck’s Symphony in D Minor, Saint-Saëns’ Third is cyclic. This means that certain important themes recur in different movements. It was appropriate for Saint-Saëns to omit formal recapitulations, since the main themes of the earlier sections recur in later sections. An additional source of unity is the symphony’s rhythmic style. In many places a tune can be felt either with or against the beat. Only by listening carefully to the accompaniment can we sense the beat, but the accompaniment is sometimes ambiguous or even nonexistent. This situation occurs, among other places, at the start of the first allegro moderato, at the beginning of the scherzo and at the transformation of the first movement’s first theme that is heard soon thereafter. The allegro moderato theme returns in the introduction to the finale and again toward the end of the symphony, each time with its relation to the beat changed. What was off the beat later falls on the beat.

The symphony contains many kinds of music, projecting many different moods. It is sometimes dance-like, sometimes intimate, and sometimes grandiose. It is a large, romantic work of a sort that was falling into disfavor in France. Yet it is a spectacular orchestral showpiece, and its return to popularity in our time is due largely to its ability to show off a virtuosic orchestra at its best.

—Jonathan D. Kramer