Symphony No. 3

Written by Chris Eaton
Review by K. M. Sandrick

Camille Saint-Saëns believed that the symphony he finished in 1886 was the best he could compose. “What I have here accomplished,” he said of Symphony No. 3, “I will never achieve again.” Music critics describe the work as an exploration of Saint-Saëns’ career as he progressed from piano prodigy to a leading composer of the Romantic period and a journey from sorrow or tragedy to triumph.

Symphony No. 3 follows the path of Saint-Saëns’ life and the musical arc of the composition. Both symphony and Symphony are divided into two parts. Allegro and Adagio recall his early years of schooling and development as a musician. Scherzo and Finale dwell on his shipboard travels and personal losses. Throughout are riffs and ruminations about art and artists, bourgeois and proletariat, friendship, love, and sexual orientation.

Language brings to resonant life the turmoil of the period, including Haussmann’s transformation of Paris’s narrow, dingy streets into boulevards, and war and siege in Algiers. Luminaries of the time, such as Franck and Fauré, as well as a factory owner and engineer populate its pages.

Unlike the experience of the symphony, however, Symphony No. 3 stalls. Rather than building a crescendo that nourishes the soul, it seems trapped in tumult that reflects anger, disdain, and condescension.

Because Symphony has only words on paper, it is as if the reader has been presented with a musical score coursed by lines and dotted with chords and notes in isolation. As the author writes, “[music] needs to be let out, to be released from the body at any cost, rather than understood through it.” The music is muted; the symphony needs to be fully heard.