Saint-Saëns’ Second Symphony: Adventures in Form

Camille Saint-Saëns was 24 years old when, during the summer of 1859, he composed Symphony No. 2 in A minor. It is a work which is both youthful and convention-defying. Intimate and compact, this music is far removed from the monumental grandeur of the “Organ Symphony,” which Saint-Saëns wrote some thirty years later. It bends symphonic form in surprising and adventurous ways.

The first movement (Allegro marcato – Allegro appassionato) begins with a stern “call to order” in the form of two thunderous chords, which open the door to a strange falling and rising motif. Moments later, individual instrumental voices, beginning with the solo violin, take center stage in a series of dramatic, operatic statements. There are echoes of both Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the music of Berlioz. This opening movement leaves behind traditional sonata form and unfolds as an introduction and a fugue. The fugue’s tempestuous subject is based on the initial motif, heard in the opening bars.

Moving to E major, the second movement (Adagio) moves with the stately elegance of a Baroque dance. From its tiptoeing opening bars, it is filled with tenderness and nostalgia.

The ferocious Scherzo (Presto – Un poco meno mosso) erupts with musical conversations and off balance rhythmic surprises. We never get the return to the Scherzo’s “A” section that we might expect. Instead, the trio section drifts away into the distance. The movement concludes with one final musical “joke.”

The final movement is an exhilarating orchestral romp. It is propelled forward with the unrelenting energy of the tarantella, a vigorous folk dance from southern Italy. In the final moments, the tarantella seems to have expended its energy. The momentum slows, and there is a brief remembrance of the Adagio before the music regains strength and surges to its final cadence.


  • Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 2 in A minor, Op. 55, Jean Martinon, ORTF National Orchestra Amazon 

Featured Image:”Paris in 1897 — Boulevard Montmartre,” Camille Pissarro

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

2 thoughts on “Saint-Saëns’ Second Symphony: Adventures in Form”

  1. Thank you for focusing on this wonderful symphony- an absolute delight! I have enjoyed the Martinon recording since it appeared in 1975, and happily now there are a number of recordings. As can be said about so much of Saint-Saens’ superb legacy, we need to hear the Second Symphony more often in the concert hall. It seems to me to be a perfect symphony for the first half of a concert.

  2. I enjoyed this useful analysis. The symphony deepens on repeated hearings. It’s full of unusual turns in direction, bright-eyed and tasteful and with wonderful tunes. The Adagio is remarkable for its brevity, a window out of the symphonic workings into a moment of pure tenderness. What a brilliant stroke. The French symphonies of this period, by Saint-Säens, Gounod, Félicien David and Bizet, are of a similar spirit; friends of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven of the Eighth. Martinon’s reading remains vital even among newer entries.


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