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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin

One time-honored, far less sentimental way of cherishing art is as an exercise of ingenuity and artifice that aims not at self-improvement but at euphoria. The late-nineteenth-century French symphonic repertoire boasts a work of that kind, too. Besides the high- minded symphonies of Franck and his pupils—they include Vincent d'Indy (1851–1931), who wrote five between 1870 and 1918, and the short-lived Ernest Chausson (1855–99), who completed one in 1890—there was also the flamboyantly virtuosic Third Symphony (1886) in C minor (but of course ending in a triumphant C major) by Camille Saint-Saëns, the original architect of the Société Nationale.

Its Beethovenian key and tonal trajectory notwithstanding, the symphony was an homage to Liszt—indeed, a veritable portrait of the “New German” icon, which became a memorial when its dedicatee died at Bayreuth, during the Wagner Festival there, while the symphony awaited its premiere. Its form is wholly indebted to Liszt's example: the main theme in each of its four movements, like the themes in a Liszt symphonic poem, is a different transformation of a single pitch sequence (Ex. 14-15). (Although obviously related to the Franckian “cyclic” idea, Saint-Saëns's method did not involve any recyclings of actual themes between movements.)

Another obvious Lisztianism, second nature to a composer who had already composed four symphonic poems, was the idea of consolidating the four movements into two by linking the ends of the first and third, by means of smooth transitions, into the beginnings of the second and fourth. Saint-Saëns claimed that the purpose of this dovetailing was to cut down on the need for recapitulations—“the interminable reprises and repetitions,” as he put it in a note in the score, “that are leading to the disappearance of instrumental music”—but in fact the first movement's recapitulation is virtually complete. The transitions, like the thematic transformations (and the many third-related harmonic progressions and modulations), seem more a flourish of up-to-date composing technique than a formal innovation.

Symphonist as Virtuoso

fig. 14-7 Camille Saint-Saëns.

That display of composerly virtuosity evoked a Lisztian resonance of another sort, and the symphony follows through by including in its very ample orchestration two keyboard instruments associated with Liszt at different stages of his life (and with Saint-Saëns as well). The scherzo/finale pair features a scintillating part for the piano (solo in the scherzo, four-hands in the finale), and the slow movement (the second part of the first pair) features a very churchy sounding organ (representative of Liszt's last period, when he had taken minor clerical orders and had begun composing for the instrument).

The organ returns in the last movement, coinciding with the transformation of the symphony's theme into a hymn that alternates with elaborate cantus firmus textures and a full-blown fugue. This is a remarkable contrast with the Franck Symphony, which deployed only traditional symphonic (and, it could be argued, operatic) materials to produce an aura widely interpreted as profoundly, and sincerely, spiritual. Saint-Saëns deploys very concrete evocations of specific sacred genres and timbres to produce an aura of exhilarating virtuosity that no one seems ever to have taken seriously as religious expression. Nor has anyone ever been tempted, it seems, even to find a program in the work, despite the fact that it so conspicuously appropriated a constructive device (“thematic transformation”) that had originally been developed in the context, and for the exclusive purposes, of program music.

In the heyday of music appreciation Saint-Saëns was given a rather indifferent reception. The Victor Book of the Symphony does not mention his Third Symphony at all (mainly, of course, because there was no Victor recording of it to sell—but that in itself is an eloquent comment in view of the symphony's one-time currency, initially far greater than Franck's). Its sophisticated play of genres and styles was ascribed to a fatal “eclecticism” by German writers who liked (and still like) to cite Saint-Saëns as evidence that despite everything the French were au fond (at bottom) irredeemable (or, as the familiar joke would have it, that deep down they were superficial).

Two years after the “Organ Symphony's” premiere, Emil Naumann wrote that “Saint-Saëns shows more intellectuality in his compositions than poetical inspiration, and more self-criticism in art-form than richness of invention.”29 Nearly a century later, Carl Dahlhaus was still mocking the “orchestral pomp that Saint-Saëns flaunts as a decorative façade,” but that cannot conceal “the failure to which any eclecticism is condemned that seeks to unite the decorative monumentality of grand opera with a classicistic formal design and a transformation technique abstracted from program music.”30

Symphonist as Virtuoso

ex. 14-15 Camille Saint-Saëns, Symphony no. 3, thematic resume

In place of moral uplift, ran the nationalistic nineteenth-century cliché that music appreciation did its best to universalize in the twentieth, French music offered sensuous and intellectual gratification; in place of a redemptive scenario (German-surnamed Franck alone excepted), it offered a tempting menu. No wonder that for German artists and their disciples, “culinary”31 became the squelch of all squelches. It stood for mindless—or worse, soulless—sensual gratification, the reputed house specialty of the French, chefs to the world. In the twentieth century, especially after the French had their chance to avenge themselves on the Germans in battle, this ordering of priorities was for a while decisively reversed.


(29) Emil Naumann, The History of Music, Vol. V, trans. F. Praeger (London: Cassell & Co., n.d.), p. 1245.

(30) Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music, p. 290.

(31) Bertolt Brecht, “On the Use of Music in an Epic Theater,” in Brecht on Theater, ed. J. Willet (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), p. 89.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014006.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014006.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014006.xml