Saint-Saëns: Organ Symphony

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The Springfield Symphony closed out its season this spring with Saint-Saëns’s Organ Symphony. Of course, this piece contains one of the most interesting orchestral excerpts for trombone in the literature. It is not high, fast, or loud — but in my opinion it is even more descriptive of a trombonist’s skills than the more typical excerpts. Saint-Saëns asks the player to demonstrate breath control, ensemble sensitivity, and phrase cultivation.

Like most professional trombonists, I’ve been studying this piece since I was in school. Here are just a few things I’ve noticed.

  • This trio is scored for instruments that often do not use vibrato. I believe this is intentional, to help the instruments blend into one conglomerate sound just like organ pipes do. For this reason, be extra careful to keep your sound pure and free of soloistic elements like vibrato.
  • In the second excerpt, the hairpins are misplaced. The crescendo is marked to peak on the E flat, but the line in the violins climaxes one beat later, on the D natural. Make sure your dynamics show awareness of the string parts, and do not breathe before that D natural.
  • Get your valve in great shape for this one. The slurs come out much more nicely if you put all the 2nd line B flats from the first excerpt (except the one in the seventh bar of Q) in third position. Similarly, you will find a host of Cs and Fs that work best in sixth position.

I’ve always liked this excerpt, and I consider it one of my strong points in an audition setting. I’m well prepared and feel very confident playing it. However, I had not had a chance to play it in the orchestra before, so I was surprised how different it felt in context. Despite all my preparation, the first rehearsal took me completely by surprise.

In an audition setting, we take a moment to prepare mentally, pause to set the chops and breathe nicely, and then play when everything feels right. In context that’s not possible. Even with excerpts like the Mozart Requiem, you have a little bit of flexibility with precisely where you place the notes. With the Organ Symphony, though, there’s only one moment to play those notes, and it’s the moment that the clarinet and horn play them. Moreover, the texture is so exposed that there’s no opportunity to fudge it a little if something doesn’t respond quite right. The trombone’s role in this excerpt is to be mechanically reliable, just like an organ pipe.

Because of this, the individual musician loses a lot of opportunity for personal expression. The most important thing, after all, is blend. No one player can decide how much to stretch the crescendo, or how abruptly to fall to the piano. The descending scale must be rigidly in time to match the strings. The flexible romanticism that the melody suggests is not the prerogative of the trombonist. That’s not to say that the expression isn’t present or that there isn’t room for rubato. It’s just that the trombonist doesn’t get to make those decisions, at least alone. The trombonist must have not just the control to render the melody, but to do it in sync with an array of external stimuli.

When sitting on an audition panel, three items are immediately obvious about a candidate:

  1. Whether the player has solid technique
  2. Whether the player has musicality
  3. Whether the player has experience

The difference between someone who has studied an excerpt and someone who has performed the whole piece is readily apparent, for the kinds of reasons I discovered performing the Organ Symphony. One of the best things I did during my undergraduate years was to join a training orchestra outside of school. It was not the best orchestra ever — in fact, it was pretty terrible, hardly better than the associated youth orchestra for high schoolers. But, in addition to the playing I did in school, I got to go play even more on the weekends. I played Wagner and Tchaikovsky and Schumann, and I did it in a wide variety of venues with a plethora of different obstacles to overcome. The broad foundation of repertoire and performance environments that I sought out in undergrad has been my most important preparation for the whimsical demands of professional performance.

The way I play the Saint-Saëns is very different now that I’ve performed it, and I have confidence that this will help me in audition scenarios. The panels will be able to hear the experience and maturity my playing has acquired through this performance. Similarly, the way I teach this piece has evolved. I have a better understanding of what to help students pay attention to, so that they are better prepared when they get their chance to perform it with an orchestra. This performance was not just great fun, but fundamentally transformative, at least in the way I approach this important work. Never underestimate the value of actually performing a piece – all the practice in the world cannot provide the insight that comes from experience!