The final concerts of the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s 2011-12 season, on May 6 and 8, will also be the last major events for the historic Kotzschmar Organ before it undergoes extensive renovations.

Municipal organist Ray Cornils will accompany the orchestra, under music director Robert Moody, in the great Camille Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, “Avec Orgue.”

Saint-Saens considered the “Organ Symphony,” his last, to be his magnum opus, and he put everything he had into it: His own characteristic orchestral texture, and his virtuosity as both pianist and organist.

Known as a traditionalist and eclectic — he could compose in any style — Saint-Saens, like his friend Berlioz, also demonstrated that there was plenty of life remaining in the Romantic musical idiom, if only in fantasy.

He reminds me most of Byron, who exhausted the truly Romantic subjects before turning to humor and parody in “Don Juan.” 

In his youth a champion of the “new music” of Wagner and Liszt (the Symphony No. 3 is dedicated to the latter), Saint-Saens later became conservative and wrote a scathing critique of Wagner titled “The Germanophile.”

He did not care for modern music in general, and is said to have left the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” early because he didn’t like the composer’s use of the bassoon in the opening bars.

Of the modernists, Saint-Saens said they were “possessed by a passion for the obscure and incomprehensible,” and were unhappy if “the instruments of the orchestra did not run from one side to the other like poisoned rats.”

I have been interested in Saint-Saens ever since hearing his Piano Concerto No. 4, which, with Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, I played until the recordings wore out.

He is an enigma of the first order. Conductors and even rival composers called him the greatest musical mind of his era, yet he wrote only a few masterpieces.

Wagner was amazed that, as a youngster, Saint-Saens could sight-read all of his operatic scores. At age 10, he could play all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas from memory.

Berlioz remarked that “he knows everything, but lacks inexperience.”

A child prodigy, Saint-Saens played throughout his career with hand-strength only, totally opposed to the arm-weight school that has since triumphed.

That might have had something to do with his organ playing. It’s sad that such a quintessentially French technique was never applied to Debussy’s piano music.

Saint-Saens, who died in 1921, recorded only a few of his own works.

He was interested in and skilled at many sciences, from mathematics to astronomy, wrote travel books (under an assumed name), and penned articles on acoustics, the occult, Roman theater decoration and ancient lyres.

He was also a poet and playwright; in 1908, he was the first composer to write a musical score for a film.

A professed atheist, Saint-Saens supported himself as church organist at Eglise de la Madeleine, where his improvisations caused Liszt to call him the greatest organist in the world.

He later wrote a book, “Problemes et mysteres,” said to have foreshadowed existentialism in its arguments for the replacement of religion by art and science.

Contemporary audiences probably know the Symphony No. 3 best as the theme music to the movie “Babe.” The May concerts provide a rare chance to hear it live.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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