Apocalyptic Vision: The Secret Meaning of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony

Apocalyptic Vision: The Secret Meaning of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony

Ever since its London premiere in 1886, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (nicknamed “the Organ Symphony” for the prominent role that instrument plays in it) has been one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire. It is one of those rare works that instantly entered the canon of masterpieces and has remained there ever since. Its most famous melody, the radiant theme of the finale, has even entered into popular culture: it has been featured in the 1995 movie Babe and at Disney World’s Epcot Center, and has even been adapted as the anthem of the would-be micronation of Atlantium.


Like other modern appropriations of classical music, these ‘bleeding chunks’ of the catchiest part of this symphony are completely divorced from the meaning this music had in its original context. In the case of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, though, even seasoned concertgoers who know the piece well may not be aware of the cultural allusions that astute audience members would have heard when listening to this piece on the night of its premiere.

Waiting for the Great French Symphony

The symphony had a troubled existence in 19th century France. After the Revolution of 1789, the symphonies of ancien regime French composers were largely forgotten, and during the post-Napoleonic era, it was opera, in both its grand and comic varieties, that constituted the main musical interest of the French public. Despite the valiant efforts of Berlioz to create a new French symphonic tradition with works like his Symphonie fantastique, symphonic music failed to establish strong roots in France, and even in Berlioz’ own lifetime, his music was sadly more often appreciated in Germany than in his homeland. When symphonies were performed at all, they were usually symphonies by Austro-German composers, especially symphonies by Beethoven. Some even believed that there was something un-French about symphonies in general, and audiences were often skeptical of new French symphonies.

This began to change after the calamitous Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, which brought a sobering end to the Second Empire and at least gave its decadent Offenbach operettas some pause. In retrospect, many felt that France had been somehow weakened by the excesses of grand opera and the frivolity of cancans and champagne. Saint-Saëns’ contemporary Edouard Schuré thus described the French musical public’s post-war desires:

“[The audience] comes searching for edification, comfort for the soul, a better atmosphere. In this compact mass of humanity, you will find in these pensive faces poets…who abandon themselves here to their dreams….You will see here thinkers tired of their thoughts who find again in this vibrant crowd a sort of religious emotion and who ask of the accents of great music a breath of the lost beyond….Here in this profound collection of each inside of himself is produced an instantaneous and mysterious communication of each with all.”

Enter Camille Saint-Saëns.

The French Beethoven

Camille Saint-Saëns in 1880.

Saint-Saëns began his career as a child prodigy who could famously play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory; his career as a composer, however, was slower to take off. By the 1880s, he had written a number of successful pieces which had a foothold in the repertoire, but his early symphonies had failed to stick, and it had been many years since he had composed one.

The symphony itself was under attack: in Germany, Wagner had proclaimed that after Beethoven’s Ninth, writing symphonies was futile and that the only way forward was to write music dramas (which he insisted were NOT operas). Although Saint-Saëns did admire Wagner’s music, he was not a fan of Wagner’s musical dogma, which, if correct, would render all of his own instrumental works pointless. He wrote a number of outspoken articles to this effect, but knowing that the battles of music history are fought with notes rather than words, he resolved to compose a symphony—a great symphony—that would revitalize the genre, show that the French could write symphonies, spiritually heal his country and prove to others and himself that he could write a great masterpiece.

When the Royal Philharmonic Society in London commissioned him to compose a new piece (interestingly, the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth many years before), Saint-Saëns had found the opportunity he needed. The premiere in London, conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was a great success, and when the symphony premiered in Paris the following year, the reception was ecstatic. Fellow composer Charles Gounod famously paid Saint-Saëns the highest compliment he could think of by declaring him “the French Beethoven.” The French were ready for a great symphony, and Saint-Saëns had written one.

Dies Irae

Part of what Saint-Saëns wanted to prove was that the symphony as a genre was not dead. He wanted to show that composers did not need to resort to words in order to convey meaning to listeners, that a symphony could be just as powerfully moving as a Wagnerian music drama (and much more time efficient). Like Beethoven, he hoped to walk the fine line between absolute music, which has no extra-musical meaning at all (consider a Chopin Nocturne), and program music, which tells a story explicitly indicated by the composer (Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, for example). Even though Beethoven never said what his Fifth Symphony was about, listeners throughout the centuries and across the world have heard in it a journey from the darkness of C minor to the light of C major, a story of heroic struggle and triumph. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony begins in C minor and ends in C major (a choice Saint-Saëns knew would invite direct comparison), but the journey on which he takes us is rather different. Like Beethoven, Saint-Saëns never provided an explicit program for this symphony, but he did leave clues in his score and the program notes he provided for the Royal Philharmonic Society that point toward a very specific theme: resurrection.

The first and most important clue is the specter of the Dies Irae, which haunts every movement of the symphony. The Dies Irae (“day of wrath”) is part of the traditional Catholic mass for the dead, and its text discusses the Day of Judgment:

Dies iræ, dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum,
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Judicanti responsura.

The day of wrath, that day
Will dissolve the world in ashes
As foretold by David and the Sibyl!

How much tremor there will be,
when the Judge will come,
investigating everything strictly!

The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound
through the sepulchres of the regions,
will summon all before the Throne.

Death and nature will marvel,
when the creature arises,
to respond to the Judge.

The words of the Dies Irae were set to a plainchant melody most likely during the 13th century, and this melody became a symbol of death and the apocalypse:


Later composers who wrote requiem masses (such as  Mozart) would write their own original music to go with these words, but in the early 19th century the original plainchant melody began to make a comeback as composers became more interested in telling stories through music. The melody was an easy way for composers to let audiences know that the music was about death. Berlioz adapted it for the last movement of his Symphonie fantastique (which depicts a Witches Sabbath that occurs over the grave of the symphony’s hero):


(It’s strange, I know—Leonard Bernstein with a beard!) Franz Liszt (Saint-Saëns friend and the dedicatee of the Organ Symphony) also used it in his Totentanz (“Dance of Death”) for Piano and Orchestra:


Saint-Saëns does not use the Dies Irae as literally as either Berlioz or Liszt did, but the main theme of his symphony is clearly derived from it:



Enlightened and progressive as the Royal Philharmonic Society was, it began printing program notes for its audiences in 1869, and asked Saint-Saëns to provide some for his new piece. In his notes, Saint-Saëns describes this music as “sombre and agitated in character,” and this theme dominates the tempestuous first movement.

Respite comes with the Adagio, the gorgeous theme of which is described by Saint-Saens as “extremely quiet and contemplative”:



The tranquility of the Adagio is, however, disturbed by a return of the Dies Irae theme, which Saint-Saens describes as “bringing back vague feelings of unrest, augmented by dissonant harmonies”:



The second half of the symphony begins with a scherzo that is by turns both demonic and mischievous, during which the Dies Irae theme also reappears, “more agitated than its predecessors”:




Then, in the great turning point of the symphony, after the unrest of the beginning, the serene yearning of the Adagio and the vivacious play of shadow and light in the scherzo, the organ enters in all its glory, followed by the symphony’s most famous melody, which Saint-Saëns describes as a “totally transformed,” major key version of the Dies Irae theme:



The message is clear: death has been somehow redeemed, transfigured. Further adding to the heavenly atmosphere are the glittering piano arpeggios accompanying the theme (interestingly, Saint-Saëns noted that he used piano in place of the harp – a more traditionally “heavenly” instrument). Immediately following is a variation of the theme for organ, punctuated by trumpet fanfares that recall “The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound / through the sepulchres of the regions, / will summon all before the Throne.” The unconventional use of the organ itself, more often heard in churches than in symphonies, also lends a religious air to the music. The intense struggle that follows includes a return of the Dies Irae theme in its original minor form that is ultimately vanquished by the major version, like the archangel Michael casting the devil out of heaven:



The End of the World, Or a New Beginning?

Raphael's St. Michael Slaying the Dragon
Raphael’s St. Michael Slaying the Dragon

Could this be a musical depiction of the apocalypse and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth? Contemporary commentators such as Emil Baumann often resorted to religious language when describing this symphony, and in our own time Watson Lyle, author of Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art, even went so far as to say that the appearance of the major version of the Dies Irae theme”…is as if we gazed upon a profile of the Christ, in bas-relief of snowy marble…”

Did Saint-Saëns intend this to be a religious work? Saint-Saëns may have taken inspiration from Christian eschatology, but his aim was most likely not to retell a story, but to show the spiritual power of music. Like Beethoven, he wanted his music to serve as a metaphor, and despite several highly evocative moments, there is no literal “story” that goes with Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. One could try to impose a narrative onto the symphony (and some of his contemporaries did), but the result would certainly be unsatisfying. The symphony unfolds according to its own purely musical logic: its melodies and phrases are dictated by what sounds and feels right rather than by specific narrative actions or events. Although Saint-Saëns would later become the first composer to write an original film score, here he did not write film music.

This begs the question: if this music is a metaphor for resurrection and victory over death, then what is being resurrected? The French nation from the ashes of war? Saint-Saëns’ career? The genre of the symphony itself? The answer is likely both all and none of these. Saint-Saëns realized that the power of symphonies comes from their ability to communicate emotions in their purest forms, allowing listeners to experience them unencumbered by characters, plots and settings they may or may not relate to.

Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony lived up to its composer’s lofty ambitions. Its premiere began a second golden age of French symphony writing, and symphonies by Franck, Chausson, d’Indy and Dukas soon followed in its wake. Furthermore, this symphony can be seen as a landmark in a trend that lead to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), in which their composers aimed to depict their respective visions of death and the afterlife. Regardless of one’s own beliefs (or lack thereof), Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony has left audiences feeling spiritually renewed from 1886 to 2015, whether they be in London, Paris, Tokyo, Caracas, or even Houston.


Recommended for Further Reading

The French Symphony at the Fin de Siècle: Style, Culture, and the Symphonic Tradition by Andrew Deruchie. This is probably the best book in English on the subject, and it also contains chapters on symphonies by Franck, Lalo, d’Indy, Chausson and Dukas.

Camille Saint-Saëns and His World edited by Jann Pasler. This collection of essays includes the original program notes Saint-Saëns wrote for the London premiere of his Organ Symphony and Sabina Teller Ratner’s “Saint-Saëns in England: His Organ Symphony,” an informative essay on the historical background of the piece and how it came to be commissioned and performed.

Don’t miss Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony at the Houston Symphony!

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1
April 30, May 1, 3, 2015
Jun Märkl, conductor
Benjamin Grosvenor, piano

Buy tickets now!

Glossary of Italianate Musical Terms for the Uninitiated

adagio: Italian for slow. A piece of music marked adagio by a composer is often referred to as an Adagio.

arpeggio: Derived from the Italian word for harp (because harps often play arpeggios). An arpeggio is musical figure that outlines a triad or chord. Composers often use arpeggios to fill in harmonies and provide accompaniment to melodies.

scherzo: Originally Italian for joke, the scherzo began as a lively substitute for the dignified minuet movement in eighteenth century string quartets. As the minuet fell out of fashion, composers began writing scherzo movements in symphonies and chamber works where minuets would have been used before. While Haydn’s scherzos may have been actual jokes, with time the term came to be applied to music of many different characters. Bruckner’s scherzos are famously terrifying.

2 responses to “Apocalyptic Vision: The Secret Meaning of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony

  1. Some people call Georges Onslow (1784-1853) the “French Beethoven. Saint Seans has been called to as the “French Mendelssohn”. Onslow was born to an English father who fled England do to a scandal and a French mother.

  2. Re: “Apocalyptic Vision: The Secret Meaning of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony”
    Six of the last videos are no longer working – it’s a shame because I was so interested in this great article!
    If you fix it, I would love to be notified.

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