The Fantaisie in E flat major was Saint-Saëns’ first published organ work. It is certainly his most enduring and is the only organ piece that still appears regularly on concert programmes. It was written in May 1857 as the restoration of the Saint-Merri organ was nearing completion and was first performed at its inauguration on 3 December that year. The manuscript bears a dedication to the composer’s friend Georges Schmitt, organist of Saint-Sulpice. Known primarily as a scholar, this is the same Georges Schmitt that Cavaillé-Coll was so singularly unimpressed with at the inauguration of the Saint-Sulpice instrument! This score makes technical demands quite exceptional for 1850s France and problematic in any age. It is written in two contrasting movements. The first is full of the charm and elegance so typical of its composer whilst the second provides a strong and confident conclusion. The critic Henri Blanchard did not think it particularly ‘fantastic’ but rather ‘serious, elegant and religious, all at the same time’. When A M Henderson visited Paris in 1908 Saint-Saëns insisted that he hear the piece on the organ for which it was written. The composer was probably anxious that Henderson appreciate fully the spatial arrangements of that organ which would have given the first movement a particular charm. That he performed it in his concerts of 1896/7 would attest to his own fondness for the piece and he must surely have played it with some regularity at La Madeleine.
from notes by Andrew-John Smith © 2008