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The Organ Symphony was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society. They did not get another Beethoven 9, but the new work made even more din. During the Madeleine years Saint-Saëns had been among those invited in 1871 to 'open' the Albert Hall organ (Bruckner was another). He knew well the English weakness for hymn tunes and being flattened by the stentorian tones of a mammoth 19th-century organ. Both should appear in the new symphony, which is at its best when neither is in evidence. The work was very properly dedicated to Liszt, using as it does aspects of thematic transformation he had elaborated. The symphony divides roughly into two, the second part combining resourceful Scherzo and bombastic finale. In the Scherzo, dexterous and fleet, Saint-Saëns is at his best, and the LPO under Geoffrey Simon enjoys chasing his every nuance [listen -- track 12, 0:00-1:09]. Yet there is no avoiding the organ, though the January sessions without it might have been an unexpected delight. Its early appearances in the finale are comparatively modest [listen -- track 12, 8:12-9:15]. The end of the work elicited wild applause at its 1886 première: it was not long before Bernard Shaw realised that it was largely humbug:

'It is a pity that this particular work of Saint-Saëns degenerates so frightfully at the end. All that barren coda stuff, with its mechanical piling of instruments, its whipping of rhythms, and its ridiculous scraps of fugato, should be ruthlessly excised'. Had Saint-Saëns taken himself seriously? I almost doubt it.

Copyright © 27 March 2002 Robert Anderson, London, UK






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