When I was very young, one of my favourite books was a youth novel written by Enid Blyton: The Sea of Adventures. Four children and a British intelligence officer chase weapon smugglers somewhere in Northern Scotland. The Hebrides, the Orkneys. Enid Blyton’s description of the landscape – an archipelago full of sea birds far away from the civilized world – captured my fantasy. Many times I would dream about those islands, wishing to see them for myself, imagining to explore them like Jack, Philipp, Dina, Lucy did, accompanied by the parrot Kiki and their grown-up friend Bill. Endless days of leisure and adventure in the middle of a wonderful natural scenery.
When I was much older I packed my backpack, my tent and some money and flew first to Glasgow and then onwards to Kirkwall, the biggest settlement on the Orkneys. Flying into the Orkney was a very moving moment. The twin-engined plane flew at a low altitude, the sky was clear, I could discern the different islands we crossed and dolphins playing in the sea. The sun was already very low and the sight out of the plane’s window took my breath away. A few days later on a three-day-hike I discovered the place that Enid Blyton has described: endless cliffs, beaten by the wind and the waves, a million birds nesting in the rocks. And all those childhood memories came back, overwhelming me. I had found a place I had seen in my dreams…
The great emotional wave that rolled over me several times during my exploration of the Orkneys – funnily I felt it when I was listening for the umpteenth time to Camille de Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78. The solemn beginning of the first movement fitted with the tension I felt while flying over the North Sea heading towards Kirkwall. The majestic sound of the organ part in the second movement matched the magnitude of my emotional upheaval when I lay flat on my belly peering over the edge of the cliffs so that I would not be blown into the sea.
Saint-Saëns’ symphony in C minor is considered by the scholar Jacques Bonnaure the apogee of the composer’s career. At the time Saint-Saëns was the only composer in France to promote this genre. The central theme is build upon a six-notes-figure inspired by the Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” and shows up in different variations throughout the piece, the most monumental one being the repetition in powerful organ chords, interspersed with brass fanfares.
The work was written in 1885; it saw its premiere in 1886 in London and had a resounding success. In the mean time a close friend of Saint-Saëns, Franz Liszt, had died and the composer dedicated it to Liszt posthumously. The 20th century composer Olivier Messiaen would later say about the symphony: “How can anyone compose in such a brilliant way such a bad music!” Messiaen reproached to Saint-Saëns that the symphony sounded artificial, constructed, not inspired by an inner necessity of the composer. Bonnaure however notes that Saint-Saëns considered precisely the perfect construction as the essence of his inner necessity as a composer.
Let yourself be impressed by this fantastic work; it has been recorded by the Orchestra National de l’ORTF under Jean Martinon between 1972 and 1975 and re-mastered in 1989.
© Charles Thibo