Performing Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony

May 2, 2017

Joyce Johnson Robinson is consulting editor of The Diapason.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)—

 pianist, organist, poet, dramatist, writer, music editor, and composer—is popularly known for his orchestral works Danse Macabre and Carnival of the Animals. He studied organ and composition at the Paris Conservatoire and served as organist of the church of Saint-Merry (1853–57) and subsequently at the church of La Madeleine in Paris. His music for organ comprised a small portion of his works: some collections of preludes and fugues, improvisations, rhapsodies on Breton themes, and a few single works.

Saint-Saëns’ compositional output includes five symphonies, two of which—youthful works—he withheld from publication, so the fifth symphony, in C minor, written in 1886, was designated No. 3. This symphony was dedicated to the memory of his friend Franz Liszt, who died ten weeks after the work’s London premiere, without having heard the work.

Symphony No. 3 has the nickname “Organ,” which instrument, with the piano, is part of the orchestral ensemble. The organ does not feature as a soloist, but it is strongly present in the finale. Symphony No. 3 is structured in two large sections, although it could be presented in a more typical four-movement design.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) of Elgin, Illinois, presented this symphony in February, the concluding work on a program that also included Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake, Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The program was conducted by music director Andrew Grams and featured organist Jonathan Rudy (of The Diapason’s 20 under 30 Class of 2016). Prior to the orchestral rehearsals and performances, we explored some of the performance issues of this symphony with conductor and organist. [NB: The Illinois Council of Orchestras named the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Illinois’ Professional Orchestra of the Year in 2016; the council had also named Andrew Grams the 2015 Conductor of the Year in the professional orchestra category.]


About the organ

As the performance venue, the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin, lacks a pipe organ, a Rodgers Infinity 361 digital instrument was supplied by Triune Music of Elmhurst, Illinois. Triune Music first partnered with the ESO around 20 years ago, when then music director Robert Hanson wished to rent a digital organ; he sought an instrument with clarity, and both Swell and Choir division 16and 4′ couplers, so that organists would have a specification available as would be found on any major concert hall pipe organ. According to Steven Smith of Triune Music, who installed the organ in the Hemmens auditorium, the challenge at a site like the Hemmens auditorium is to provide enough sound for the organ to be a solo instrument without making the orchestra unable to hear themselves, since speakers are positioned only a few feet above or behind the orchestra, rather than higher up, as they would be with pipe organ chambers. Triune made use of a special speaker system that throws the higher frequencies of the organ sound upwards so it would not interfere with the ability of the musicians to hear each other on stage; they also employed four large sub-woofers that were “floor-loaded,” that is, aimed into the hardwood floor of the stage, increasing the decibel level of the low frequencies to a point where the audience could feel them.  (Interesting fact: Steven Smith had also been the organist for a previous ESO performance of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in 2008.)

Most digital organs today permit the selection of a “genre” of voices  (French-style sounds, or German). The Infinity 361 organ has a “Voice Palette” feature that permits more than one sampled rank to be available on any of its speaking stops. For instance, one could draw the 8′ Principal, but by turning a knob, change to another related voice, such as Open Diapason, Octave, or Montre, and save the chosen voice to a piston. As such, the organist can choose a broad English Diapason, an American Classic Mixture, and a French Chorus Reed simultaneously, depending on the colors desired.



Joyce Johnson Robinson: Maestro Grams, why did you want to program the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony?

Andrew Grams: Because I like doing it! It’s a great, great symphony. I played it the first time, as a violinist, at school.


JJR: How many times have you presented it?

AG: At least four. Once was even down in Adelaide, Australia.


JJR: Were these all with pipe organs?

AG: Not all. Adelaide was, North Carolina Symphony was not. I don’t remember all of them.


JJR: In the score, are there certain passages that you’re already thinking you need to check?

AG: For me, it’s just let’s go through it and see what it’s like and see what the issues are, and make adjustments as needed. And adjustments can be done very quickly.

Jonathan D. Rudy: That’s right! Very quickly. And I know for me, one of the biggest questions is just hearing it together for the first time, to know if there is such a thing as too much on this organ—

AG: There is. There’s going to be. I think you’ve got a lot of juice available to you.

JDR: I’m looking forward to see where we strike that, and then adjusting registrations from there. Right now I’ve just got every possibility and then some registered, so we’ll make some quick adjustments.


JJR: Jonathan, how are you preparing for this since you have limited time to familiarize yourself with the organ?

JDR: Of course, regular and patient practice is the ticket for truly mastering a piece. But in an ensemble setting like this, it is extremely important to take time and understand how one fits and functions with the group as a whole. This involves careful (full) score study, listening, analysis, and thought. For example, knowing that the organ’s first entry in the piece functions as the harmonic foundation for the string’s unison melody influences my registration choices here. In such cases, I’d choose to utilize the full 8 chorus for a lush and harmonically foundational sound. Regarding the instrument, I’ve had some practice over the last few years adapting to instruments a few days in advance of performances. What I typically do is study the stoplist, and as far as I’m able, consider registration choices in advance. I also try to prepare the works on similar organs (especially where mechanical action is involved) in my local area.


JJR: How long did it take you to acclimate yourself to this instrument, especially since it has features that aren’t on pipe organs?

JDR: That was the fun part about it. In practice it’s a pretty standard layout—the pedal and the manual layout is AGO standard, so that wasn’t really an issue. The touch was very friendly, I thought, for being an electronic instrument, and it had a nice resistance to the key—that wasn’t an issue. But, knowing that for every stop, there’s often one, two, or three alternate stops that you can choose—that was rather interesting. It did allow for some more flexibility in the tone I was looking for and the color—for example, Saint-Saëns is a French composer, and probably composed with Cavaillé-Coll in mind. He certainly wrote his organ music that way. So being able to choose, say, a Montre, over a Principal, over other styles, was helpful in this case. But it did take a little longer to come up with that general crescendo, which I have purposed for this. Lots of options!


JJR: This symphony is such a wonderful piece, with its thematic interweaving, especially in its latter half. Maestro, are you performing it as two or as four movements?

AG: I think of it as two, but I think you can make an argument to do it as one big movement, and not have such a big gap between part one and part two. I think in practice it’s probably a good idea to relax and shake it out before we launch into the Scherzo proper, but I agree with you. I can’t remember the first time I ever heard the piece; but I know that I always loved it. And as I went through the university years and started to learn more about composition, about how things are built, my appreciation for the piece grew and grew, because not only is it exciting and grand but it’s so well put together. There’s that passage just before the long transitional passage into the Finale, where he’s got this nice fugato and then he just adds all the previous touches on top of each other. Every time I get to that passage I think, “This is the best stuff in the world!”

JDR: He takes that transformation from some of his peers at the time—definitely Franz Liszt, definitely Brahms, they were both known for their motivic transformation like that. But I love how he works that style into his well-constructed traditionalist compositions. There’s so much emotion, but everything is restrained; everything is brought into the form. I think that’s really exciting—as you said, the construction builds up the piece.

AG: Pristine. It’s like one of those really intricate stained glass windows that portrays something not terribly complicated but it’s made up of these tiny little pieces of glass that have been put together in such an amazingly well-fit, well-constructed way that you know exactly what you’re looking at.

JDR: It’s really cool how the organ and orchestra play off each other. They’re very much equal partners in the music; it’s not meant to put the organ on display; the organ is meant to be—

AG: It’s a complement. First and foremost, it’s Saint-Saens’s Third Symphony. “Which one is that one?” “It’s the one with the organ.”


JR: Maestro Grams, how do you approach a piece for the orchestra? Is it in terms of tempos or lines?

AG: For me, I think it’s balancing all of the variables that you get—but this applies to any sort of orchestral performance. (to Jonathan) Your variable is you don’t know necessarily what instrument you’re going to play. My variable is whatever orchestra I’m working with—even if it’s my orchestra—I’m not playing it, so I’m not really in control of what’s happening, so I need to figure out, as we work on things, how do I make everything sound the best that I can? And it might not necessarily be exactly what I have in my head, but it’s really truly how do I get everybody to sound their very, very best, for whatever that group is going to be, at that time.


JJR: The organ appears in two movements, first as a quiet accompanist, later as a stronger support and even with some solo passages. How difficult is it to gain the proper balance? 

JDR: As an organist and an ensemble player, I will need to bring out the best of my accompanimental skills. In many ways, playing with an orchestra is akin to accompanying choral and anthem music, and requires sensitive listening and careful registration choices to balance with the colors of the orchestra. This symphony really isn’t an organ “solo,” but a true ensemble piece. The organist must carefully make choices that bring the color of the instrument to the table, but doesn’t overpower the orchestra at times.


JJR: Of the movements or sections in which the organ appears, is any one more challenging than another?

JDR: They have their challenges in different aspects, particularly in terms of registration. It’s hard to say one movement is more challenging, because the slow movement presents a different set of difficulties and choices (registration, balance) than the finale (slightly more technical, more registration choices, etc.). 

I know I’m going to be changing everything today. I’ve already about changed every single piston in some small minute form because I’m still experimenting and getting to know this organ, and getting to know what registrations I’m really starting to like in which sections. So I think that’s one of the challenges, especially in the soft section. You just want to find the most delicate and beautiful of sounds to begin that movement, the second half of that movement. So I’m experimenting with that.

One of the musical challenges for me, I think, is in the last movement, and that’s the metric displacements a little bit. If you listen to the piece, which I’ve done for a long time, you may hear the meter happening at a different spot than what’s written. So I’m still working a little bit to make sure I’m counting clearly through those measures—and I’m going to be watching like a hawk, by the way, for those spots where the organ comes in on the off beats. It’s written as a downbeat. That’s going to be a fun part as well—definitely challenging.


JJR: How about when the organ and the piano are together? Is that any potential problem, because there’s a lot going on there?

AG: I don’t think so. The important piano textures are usually all in the passages without the organ. There is so much loud activity everywhere that it’s “everybody have at it.”

JDR: Right. You’re thinking after the first solid chords and then the piano comes in. And then the organ has some quieter solid chords in the background, and I think those can come slightly out of the texture a little bit.

AG: A little bit—but not much. It’s commentary.

JDR: Exactly. You want less volume and more color at that point. And I’d like to give a shout out to Triune Music—Steve and Mark [Mackeben] and everyone else that brought this organ into place. When they installed it they actually spent some time before they brought it and worked on the registrations and came with some suggestions, which I thought were very helpful. They know this instrument very well. 


JJR: Gentlemen, thank you. I’m very much looking forward to the performance.

AG: Well, I hope that we knock your socks off.

JDR: This instrument sure has that capability, and I know the orchestra does.


Thanks to Diane Handler of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra and Steven Smith of Triune Music for their assistance.


Andrew Grams is music director of the Elgin Symphony Orchestra. The 2015 Conductor of the Year from the Illinois Council of Orchestras, Grams has led orchestras throughout the United States, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Detroit Symphony, and National Symphony Orchestra. In Canada he has led orchestras in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver; on other continents, he has led orchestras in France, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Born in Severn, Maryland, Grams began violin study at age eight; he received a bachelor of music in violin performance from the Juilliard School in 1999, and a conducting degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in 2003. His website is


Jonathan Rudy is a candidate for the doctor of music degree in organ and sacred music from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, where he earned his master of music degree, studying organ with Janette Fishell and choral conducting with William Gray and Richard Tangyuk, and where he has served as associate instructor of music theory and aural skills. His undergraduate work was at Valparaiso University, studying organ and sacred music with Lorraine Brugh and Karel Paukert. He is a member of The Diapason’s “20 under 30” Class of 2016 and is under the management of Karen McFarlane Artists.


Joyce Johnson Robinson is consulting editor of The Diapason.


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