Composers Datebook®

Saint-Saens and 'Babe' at the organ

Composers Datebook - May 19, 2024


It’s ironic that Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns was more appreciated in England and the United States than in his native France.

And so, it’s perhaps not surprising that his Symphony No. 3 (Organ), premiered not in Paris, but at St. James’ Church in London on today’s date in 1886, with the composer conducting as well as performing as the organ soloist.

In addition to being a famous composer and brilliant pianist, Saint-Saëns was also an accomplished organist. In 1857, he became an organist at the famous Church of the Madeleine in Paris, and held that post for 20 years. Romantic composer Franz Liszt once hailed Saint-Saëns as the finest organist in the world. And so, again not surprisingly, Saint-Saëns dedicated the published score of the Organ Symphony to Liszt, who had died in Germany shortly after the London premiere.

What we do find surprising is that, for quite a few modern American audiences, this great and noble symphonic work calls to mind a clever little sheep-herding piglet named Babe, since one of the uplifting themes from the Organ Symphony was used, to great effect, in a popular 1995 film about talking barnyard animals.

Music Played in Today's Program

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Symphony No. 3 (Organ); Peter Hurford, organ; Montreal Symphony Orchestra; Charles Dutoit, conductor; London/Decca 410201

On This Day


  • 1616 - Baptismal date of German composer and organist Johann Jacob Froberger, in Stuttgart


  • 1935 - American composer Charles Martin Loeffler, 74, in Medfield, Massachusetts

  • 1954 - American composer and insurance executive Charles Ives, 79, in New York

  • 2009 - British composer Nicholas Maw, 73, in Washington, D.C.


  • 1842 - Donizetti: opera Linda di Chamounix, in Vienna

  • 1886 - Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3 (Organ), in London

  • 1911 - Ravel: L'Heure Espagnole (Spanish Hour), in Paris at the Opèra Comique

  • 1915 - Stravinsky: Three Pieces for string quartet, in Paris

  • 1932 - Shostakovich: incidental music for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in Moscow at the Vakhtangov Theater

  • 1939 - Cowell: Return for 3 percussionists and wailer, at the Cornish School in Seattle, by John Cage and his Percussion Group

  • 1942 - Cage: music for the radio play The City Wears a Slouch Hat (text by poet Kenneth Patchen), broadcast in Chicago

  • 2000 - Robert X. Rodriguez: The Last Night of Don Juan for chorus and orchestra, by the San Antonio Symphony and chorus, Wilkins conducting

  • 2002 - William Bolcom: Symphony No. 7 (A Symphonic Concerto), at Carnegie Hall in New York, by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine conducting


  • 1886 - American premiere of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor (11 selections), during the May Festival in Cincinnati, conducted by Theodore Thomas. The next documented performance (12 sections) was given in Boston on Feb. 27, 1887, by the Handel and Haydn Society, with Carl Zerrahn conducting a chorus of 432 and an orchestra of 50. In both the 1886 Cincinnati and 1887 Boston performances, the famous 19-century German soprano Lilli Lehmann appeared as one of the soprano soloists. The first complete performance of the work was apparently given either at the Moravian Church in Bethlehem on Mar 17, 1900, by the Bach Choir under J. Fred Wolf, or at Carnegie Hall in new York on April 5, 1900, by the Oratorio Society, Frank Damrosch conducting.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

About Composers Datebook®