About this Recording
NBD0045 - SAINT-SAËNS, C.: Symphony No. 3, "Organ" / Danse Macabre / Cypres et Lauriers (Warnier, Lyon National Orchestra, Slatkin) (Blu-Ray Audio)
English  French 

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’ • Danse macabre • Cyprès et Lauriers


Camille Saint-Saëns was born in 1835, two years after Brahms, and died in 1921, three years after Debussy, having enjoyed a career of rare longevity. He gave his first concert at the age of eleven, and his last just a few weeks before his death, and achieved international renown as both a pianist and a composer. A remarkably talented musician, he was resident organist at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris for twenty years (the young Fauré became his deputy there), only resigning from this highly demanding post in 1877. Six years earlier he had founded the Société nationale de musique to promote the instrumental music of young French composers at a time when this field was dominated by German musicians. He himself achieved considerable success in the fields of chamber and orchestral music. Opera, on the other hand, took him longer to conquer: he was almost sixty when Samson et Dalila was eventually produced—to huge acclaim—at the Paris Opéra. Although he left an indelible mark on French music, Saint-Saëns missed the turning-point of modernity: in the second decade of the twentieth century, when composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók were beginning to establish a new order, he remained firmly anchored in the tradition of the 1800s.

Saint-Saëns was at the height of his fame when the Royal Philharmonic Society of London (which had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony) invited him to write a symphony. The resulting work calls on both the organ and the piano, neither of which had previously been part of the symphony orchestra: as stated in the programme notes written for the première, “The composer felt that the time had come for the symphony to benefit from the progress made in modern instrumentation.” Proof of Saint-Saëns’s satisfaction with his Third Symphony can be seen in the fact that he later dedicated it to the memory of Franz Liszt, with whom he had formed a relationship of mutual admiration, and who died shortly before the work’s première; the Hungarian composer had seen the score before its completion and had praised it enthusiastically.

The older composer was the inspiration behind the Symphony on several fronts: the originality of its form (the four standard symphonic movements are grouped in two sets of two and united by a series of thematic links); the manner in which the organ blends with the orchestra (pre-echoed in Liszt’s symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns)); and the work’s use of thematic transformation, a procedure pioneered by Liszt in his own orchestral works: a “cyclic” theme is, in effect, threaded through the score as a whole, taking on all kinds of different guises. This theme is formed from the combination of two motifs heard in the first few bars: four questioning notes from the oboe, then a light and restless motif on the strings. It generates the entire first movement (Allegro moderato), whether overtly or in more subtle fashion, and takes on new aspects in the development section, notably that of a brass fanfare which betrays an affinity with the Gregorian Dies irae. The organ makes its entrance in the slow movement (Poco adagio), on an exquisite modulation into the key of D flat major. Its undulating stops veil the orchestra in swathes of angelic sonorities.

The second half links together the scherzo and finale. The former (Allegro moderato) returns to the initial C minor, and its theme is a devilish caricature of the cyclic theme, in the manner of Liszt; it is interrupted by an ethereal trio (Presto), bathed in light by the soaring notes of the piano part. An imperious C major chord on the organ then marks the start of the finale (Maestoso). The cyclic theme appears here in new apparel: flowing undulations recalling the “Aquarium” movement from The Carnival of the Animals, a lively fugal development… and, of course, the grandiose organ tutti reprise which made the Symphony’s name (it bears an astonishing resemblance to a setting of the Ave Maria by the sixteenth-century Franco-Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt popularised in the 1860s thanks to an organ transcription by Liszt). These elements whirl around in an increasingly intense counterpoint, with the genuine Dies irae soon outdoing its various parodies. Powerful organ chords impel this enormous mass of music to an explosive conclusion.

The Third Symphony was introduced to audiences on modest instruments: the eighteen-stop Bryceson Brothers & Ellis organ for the première at St James’s Hall in London, on 19 May 1886 (Saint-Saëns had the unpleasant surprise of discovering that this had replaced the better-equipped Gray & Davison instrument he had played in 1882); and the Mutin organ at the Paris Conservatoire, where the hugely successful French première took place on 9 January 1887. Performances of the work, however, continue to be associated with the grand organs built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, whose symphonic qualities enable a perfect osmosis to be achieved with the orchestra. The legendary Trocadéro organ, now housed in Lyon and heard on this recording, was ideal for the Symphony, and was also the instrument Saint-Saëns had in mind when he began composing Cyprès et Lauriers (Cypresses and Laurels).

This diptych for organ and orchestra actually originated, however, in Belgium: it was the result of a commission from Léon Jehin, conductor of the Concerts d’Ostende. While composing the work, Saint-Saëns confided to his friend Eugène Gigout that he wanted the première to take place at the Trocadéro, but his hopes were dashed when it proved impossible to schedule there, and the work was therefore first performed in Ostend after all, on 11 July 1919; Saint-Saëns played the organ under the baton of Jehin. The composer himself conducted the French première at the Trocadéro on 24 October 1920, entrusting the solo part to Gigout.

A poignant lament, Cyprès was written for solo organ so that it could be played separately, at funerals. The composer gives few registration indications, notating only the nuances and a few solo stops. The “orchestration” work is therefore left to the imagination of the performer; for this recording, Vincent Warnier has chosen a very detailed and varied registration. The oriental flavour of the opening bars recalls the circumstances in which the piece was written: in the early weeks of 1919, Saint-Saëns was staying at the Hammam Righa spa in Algeria. The musical tension gradually builds to a huge climax, led by the organ’s most powerful reeds. Two terrifying chords resolve into a desolate Hautbois solo. The movement ends on a Voix humaine solo—a strange evocation of the melodic design of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

A lively fanfare in which the organ tutti competes against an orchestra featuring military trumpets, Lauriers is a tribute to the Allied victory in World War I. Fugato moments bring touches of solemnity here and there, and shimmering harps suggest the transfigured glory of heroes.

While the Third Symphony and Cyprès et Lauriers call on the original range of the Trocadéro organ (the Cavaillé-Coll-built stops), the Danse macabre showcases the full palette of the Lyon Auditorium organ, making use of the additional stops incorporated over the years, up to and including the 2013 restoration.

Written in 1874 and published the following year, the Danse macabre is the third of the composer’s four symphonic poems. It begins with the clock striking midnight. Then Death, represented by a solo violin, plays a dissonant tritone, an interval believed in the Middle Ages to belong to the devil and nicknamed the “diabolus in musica”. The violin strikes up a languorous waltz, while skeletons clash into one another to the sound of the xylophone; this famous theme, a parody of the Dies irae, was also caricatured by Saint-Saëns in The Carnival of the Animals (the “Fossils” movement) where it is marked “Allegro ridicolo”! The dance becomes a demonic sabbath, which is finally dispersed by dawn and the crowing of the cockerel.

The Danse macabre is an orchestral adaptation of the song of the same name that Saint-Saëns wrote in 1872, setting to music a poem by Henri Cazalis (alias Jean Lahor): “Zig et zig et zag, la mort en cadence / Frappant une tombe avec son talon / La mort à minuit joue un air de danse / Zig et zig et zag, sur son violon… (Zig and zig and zag, Death beating time / on a tomb with its heel / At midnight Death plays a dance tune / Zig and zig and zag, on his violin). Its popularity can be measured by the number of times it has been adapted: Saint-Saëns himself transcribed it for violin and piano and for piano four hands, Liszt for solo piano (a version later revised by Vladimir Horowitz), Ernest Guiraud for two pianos, eight hands… In 1919 the English organist Edwin Lemare created a transcription of formidable virtuosity, requiring considerable acrobatics of the performer in order to convey the richness of the original orchestration. Vincent Warnier has taken this version and reworked both the writing and the registration, so as to highlight the solo stops and take advantage of the full symphonic sound of the Lyon Auditorium organ.

Claire Delamarche
English translation: Susannah Howe

The Cavaillé-Coll/Gonzalez/Aubertin organ of the Lyon Auditorium

Built for the concert hall within the Palais du Trocadéro as part of the 1878 Paris Expo, this monumental instrument (boasting 82 stops and 6500 pipes) was a showcase for the most renowned organ-builder of the day, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. The world’s greatest musicians have queued up to sit at the console of this prestigious organ, on which such masterpieces as Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and the Requiems of Duruflé and Fauré, as well as other great works by Franck, Widor, Dupré, Messiaen, Jehan Alain, Thierry Escaich and Kaija Saariaho have been unveiled. Reconstructed in 1939 in the new Palais de Chaillot by Victor Gonzalez, then relocated by his successor Georges Danion in 1977 to the Lyon Auditorium, it was restored to all its former eloquent glory in 2013 by Michel Gaillard (of the Aubertin company). The variety of its stops means it is now suitable for all repertoires, from Bach and Couperin to the great Romantic works and contemporary compositions.

For more information, please visit www.auditorium-lyon.com/orgue.

Close the window