The Organ Symphony often is viewed in the same light as Saint-Saëns’ general appraisal – more masterful in its construction than in its inspiration. Even so, it is widely admired for what it is. In the words of Philip Hale, a late 19th century Boston critic, it “has the finest and most characteristic qualities of the best French music – logical construction, lucidity, frankness, euphony. The workmanship is masterly. The composer knew exactly what he wanted and how to express it.”
Ironically, although its claim to fame is the featured organ, the actual part for that instrument is quite simple, mostly relegated to deep pedal points and sustained chords that underpin the orchestral activity. Even so, the organ is completely silent for the first halves of both movements and during much of the rest as well.
This French composer was 50 and at the height of his creative power when an invitation to conduct his music in London brought with it a commission for a new work — specifically, a symphony. Saint-Saëns accepted this offer and began sketching a large symphony in the early part of 1886. He had scarcely begun, however, when he received word of the death of Franz Liszt. The news affected Saint-Saëns deeply, and it immediately altered the character of the symphony he was writing. Liszt’s works represented a musical ideal for many French composers of the late 19th century, but especially for Saint-Saëns, who shared his Hungarian counterpart’s preference for descriptive program music, and for a colorful virtuosity in both keyboard and orchestral composition.
Saint-Saëns therefore decided to compose his new symphony as a tribute to Liszt, and to dedicate the work to his memory. The inclusion of prominent roles for both piano and organ were part of this tribute. Liszt had enjoyed a brilliant career as a concert pianist, but he spent his final years in a monastery composing sacred music, much of it for the organ. A less tangible but equally important homage is the recurrent use throughout the work of a single principal motif, a compositional device favored by Liszt.