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Program Notes: Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Saturday, November 2, 2019 at 8:00PM

Sunday, November 3, 2019 at 3:00PM

James Ehnes, violin

BARBER Adagio for Strings

JOHN WILLIAMS Violin Concerto

SAINT-SAËNS Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 78, "Organ"



Born March 9, 1910, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Died January 23, 1981, New York, New York

composer Samuel Barber photo
Samuel Barber

Adagio for Strings

No piece of twentieth century classical music is more popular than Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. It tugs hearts in movies. It is covered by artists of every genre. It is the western world’s soundtrack to mourning.

But popularity can obscure its humble beginnings. The Adagio for Strings was written by a young man who was still largely unknown. It began as the middle movement of a string quartet. It was written at a time of calm and joy.

Holy Humor

The 25-year-old Barber began work on his first and only string quartet in the cottage of a French estate. “Sam has been in a holy humor all summer,” wrote his partner Gian Carlo Menotti. “[He] fought with very few people and insulted only one or two of them.”

Barber struggled with the quartet, but one movement gave him no trouble: the central Adagio. “It is a knockout!”, he wrote on the day he finished it. Two years later, hoping to give it a longer life, he created an orchestral version.

Across the Nation

“Overnight sensations” are often exaggerated. But on a single night in 1938, Barber’s name became known across the nation.

In 1938, the effects of the Great Depression hurt, the fight for civil rights raged, the clouds of war gathered. Into this turbulence, Samuel Barber offered his Adagio for Strings.

At the time, radio was king: some seven percent of America’s population tuned in to Arturo Toscanini’s live orchestral broadcasts. It was rare for the conductor to champion the music of an American composer, so when he introduced Barber’s Adagio in a broadcast, the country took notice.

The title: so humble, so unassuming. Adagio, meaning “to be played slowly,” is derived from the Italian words ad agio, meaning “at ease.” Yet, for more than 80 years this music has brought generations of listeners to tears.

Barber’s music feels modern, yet also very old. A melody meanders, winding around the same notes, a reminder of ancient church chant. Perhaps Barber offers this work as a secular prayer. Later, he arranged the work for choir, setting it to the text of the Agnus Dei:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

First performance: November 5, 1938, in New York, Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a radio broadcast

First SLSO performance: December 8, 1939, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 24, 2013, David Robertson conducting

Scoring: strings

Performance time: Approximately 8 minutes


Composer John Williams photo
John Williams


Born February 8, 1932, Floral Park, New York

Violin Concerto

A Tragedy

In 1974, John Williams was a film composer at the beginning of his career. He had steadily climbed Hollywood’s rungs, working as a studio pianist, then arranger, then composer. He was the go-to composer for disaster movies like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake.

But a new direction beckoned. Later that year, he wrote the score for a small movie, The Sugarland Express, directed by a talented young man by the name of Steven Spielberg.

Then, a shock. Barbara Ruick, Williams’ wife, died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage. Ruick was a singer and actor known for recurring TV roles and as a lead in Carousel. The loss was devastating.

When Ruick died, Williams was at work on the Violin Concerto. He later dedicated the work to her. Other than that dedication, Williams has not spoken publicly of any connection between the concerto and his wife’s tragic death, but the work—yearning and snarling and lamenting and fighting—does put intense emotional demands on both performers and audience.

Film or Concert?

Today, the worlds of film and concert music are close. “Concert music” composers often write film scores, and “film music” composers are commissioned to write concert works. But in 1974, these worlds were kept far apart.

Williams considers his concert works to be a totally separate realm of activity, requiring a different musical approach. Indeed, the Violin Concerto inhabits a different sound-world: gnarled, complex, with none of the melodic hooks of Williams’ film music.

But there are still hints of John Williams the film composer: Does the slow movement bring to mind a scene of emotional connection? Does the final movement drop us occasionally into a chase scene? Does the end of the work give a glimpse of the wide-eyed adventure of a child?

The Music

Williams was drawn to the violin as “an instrument of enormous expressive power.” The concerto’s solo part presents huge challenges: it requires enormous technical skill, and reserves of stamina and emotional engagement.

The violin opens the work, musing, quietly. Intensity gathers—the violinist almost never stops playing throughout the concerto, like a person afraid of what might happen if they stop talking.

According to Williams, the songful second movement, with its gentle rocking rhythm, has the character of an elegy. Even many years later, he points to this movement as one with which he feels a strong connection.

For Williams, the creative process is “complex. It has to do with everything we’ve read and all the associations we have in our lives.” Might we imagine, in this slow music, the stillness of a house suddenly empty, the loneliness of a close partner now gone?

First performance and SLSO premiere: January 29, 1981, Leonard Slatkin conducting, with Mark Peskanov as soloist

Scoring: solo violin, 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, glockenspiel, marimba, snare drum, suspended cymbal, two triangles, vibraphone, xylophone, harp, strings

Performance time: Approximately 31 minutes


Composer Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns
Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns


Born October 9, 1835, Paris, France

Died December 16, 1921, Algiers, Algeria

Symphony No. 3, “Organ”


Saint-Saëns was a master of the miniature. His output is dotted with tiny piano solos, with voice and piano songs.

What would push him, aged fifty, to step outside his comfort zone, to return to the symphonic form after a gap of some twenty-five years?


Saint-Saëns loved England. Twenty years prior, he fled a bloody siege of Paris for England, and was treated with kindness. So when the Royal Philharmonic Society asked him for a grand new symphony, he immediately said yes.

The speed and enthusiasm of his response to the Royal Philharmonic’s request might have had another cause. France was opera-mad, and the symphony as a genre had been gathering dust. This commission allowed Saint-Saëns, a French patriot, to come to the rescue, to “renew the symphonic form” for his country.


Saint-Saëns was astonishingly gifted. A prolific and long-lived composer, an organ and piano virtuoso performer, he was also a celebrated writer and had knowledge of astronomy, botany, and philosophy.

Still, the challenge of this symphony made him nervous. “It will be terrifying,” he wrote. “[T]here will be much in the way of experiment in this terrible thing.” For an arch conservative, obsessed with concision, to put himself forward on such a public stage was risky.

“I am looking forward to conducting this symphony,” he wrote to the Royal Philharmonic. “Will the others look forward to hearing it?”


The Third Symphony is a musical self-portrait. Within its walls are aspects of the composer, his talents, doubts, beliefs, fears, hopes.

His instruments are here. The pipe organ, which Saint-Saëns played in a Parisian parish, is included in two movements. The piano, which Saint-Saëns had played since childhood, receives a part of such virtuosity that two musicians are needed.

A passion for sacred music is here. Saint-Saëns, though an atheist, wrote dozens of sacred works, and several themes in the symphony have relationships with church hymn melodies.

A love of logic and balance is here. The music of this sprawling work is fastened together tightly. Divided into four sections (two sections per movement), Saint-Saëns carefully crafted many melodies to relate to one another.

The forces of darkness are here. When he wrote the symphony, Saint-Saëns was bereft. His mother was advanced in years, and several close friends had died. Dark thoughts lurk in this symphony. The Dies irae (the Latin mass of the dead) stalks the symphony’s pages. Teeth chatter in the first movement.

And, finally, there is hope. The symphony gradually progresses from darkness into light, exploding into the work’s dazzling conclusion. In fact, some writers have heard this work as a sort of personal “Resurrection.”

The Final Word

“I have given all that I had to give,” wrote Saint-Saëns about the Third Symphony. “What I have done I shall never do again.”

First performance: May 19, 1886, in London, the composer conducting the Royal Philharmonic Society

First SLSO performance : February 11, 1937, Vladimir Golschmann conducting

Most recent SLSO performance: March 1, 2009, Jun Märkl conducting

Scoring: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbal, triangle, organ, piano (four hands), strings

Performance time: Approximately 36 minutes


Program Notes by Tim Munro, the SLSO's Creative Partner.


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