Camille Saint-Saëns’ illustrious career spanned over six decades, touching almost every genre of music. Among his many compositions, one piece captures the imagination with its vivid orchestral colors and playful motifs: ‘The Carnival of the Animals’. Written in 1886, this suite is a musical portrayal of various animals, both real and imagined.
Composition and Premiere
Composed in early 1886 in a village near Vienna, Austria, Saint-Saëns created ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ for a Mardi Gras concert hosted by the celebrated cellist Charles Lebouc. Interestingly, the composition wasn’t merely an act of musical exploration; it was intended to evoke laughter without resorting to childishness. This was somewhat controversial given Saint-Saëns’ reputation as a stern, serious composer.
Its premiere took place on March 9, 1886, during the Paris Carnival, led by Lebouc himself. Notably, it was performed again in the presence of the legendary composer Franz Liszt on April 2, 1886, at the residence of the famed singer Pauline Viardot.
Liszt was notably taken by the piece’s orchestration. However, perhaps fearing its jovial nature might overshadow his more serious works, Saint-Saëns restricted its public performances during his lifetime. Of the entire suite, only ‘The Swan’ was exempt from this embargo, gaining immense popularity and becoming a staple piece for cellists over generations.
It wasn’t until after Saint-Saëns’ passing that the piece was performed publicly in its entirety, with its full debut on February 25 and 26, 1922, under the baton of Gabriel Pierné.
A French Tradition: Musical Pastiche
‘The Carnival of the Animals’ taps into a longstanding French tradition of musical pastiche, employing humorous portrayals and parodies. The piece is peppered with witty references to works by composers such as Rameau, Offenbach, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Rossini. But Saint-Saëns’ humor didn’t stop there: he also incorporated nods to popular children’s songs of his time like “J’ai du bon tabac”, “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman”, and “Au clair de la lune”. There’s even a touch of self-parody with Saint-Saëns referencing his own compositions.
It’s become common to pair ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ with other instructive pieces in recordings, such as Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ or Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’. While ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ is playfully described as a “Grand Zoological Fantasy”, it stands as a brief yet impactful chapter in the composer’s vast oeuvre, a detour from the same year he completed his masterful Symphony No. 3 with organ.
Dive into the Movements
The suite consists of 14 movements, each representing a different animal or group of animals. The piece is scored for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, piccolo, clarinet, glass harmonica, and xylophone.
Introduction and Royal March of the Lion
Opening with a flourish, this movement presents the lion as the king of the animal kingdom. With a majestic theme and cascading scales, we can imagine the powerful feline parading with pride.
Hens and Roosters
Using the strings, Saint-Saëns imitates the pecking of hens and the crowing of roosters. A busy, repetitive motif represents the constant motion of poultry.
Evoking the image of swift-footed creatures, the two pianos play rapid, unchanging scales, signifying the animals’ frenetic energy.
This movement borrows from Offenbach’s famous can-can. However, it’s humorously played at a much slower tempo, aptly representing the languid pace of tortoises.
Saint-Saëns chooses the double bass and piano for this portrayal. Incorporating themes from Berlioz’s ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the elephant’s dance is comically cumbersome.
Here, the hopping of kangaroos is mimicked by staccato notes in the piano, which playfully jump from one motif to another.
With the use of a glass harmonica and undulating piano scales, Saint-Saëns paints an ethereal underwater scene, reminiscent of fish gliding gracefully.
Characters with Long Ears
A short movement where Saint-Saëns uses the strings to depict the braying of donkeys. It’s believed that the ‘characters’ alluded to might be music critics!
The Cuckoo in the Deep Woods
This movement is a study in minimalism. A clarinet replicates the cuckoo’s call, set against a subdued background of pianos and strings.
Flute trills and rapid violin notes give life to the image of a vibrant bird sanctuary, alive with fluttering wings and birdsong.
Ironically, in this zoological fantasy, Saint-Saëns includes pianists. The relentless scales played reference the diligent practice sessions of pianists.
Saint-Saëns cheekily incorporates snippets of his own compositions, alongside references to popular tunes of his era. The xylophone emulates the sound of bones, making it a whimsical commentary on the ‘fossils’ of the music world.
Perhaps the most famous movement, it features a serene melody played on the cello, reminiscent of a swan gliding on water. The piece has become iconic in its own right, often performed as a standalone.
The suite concludes with a rousing finish, as themes from previous movements reappear, culminating in a grand musical parade.
Legacy and Impact
Saint-Saëns might not have expected this playful work to become one of his most beloved compositions. ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ has since found its place in various facets of popular culture, from film to ballet.
Educationally, it serves as an excellent introduction to orchestral instruments for young listeners, as each movement vividly showcases the unique timbre and capabilities of different instruments. Furthermore, many a pianist, cellist, or flutist has encountered sections of this work in their training, testament to its lasting impact in the classical repertoire.
‘The Carnival of the Animals’, with its vivid imagery and brilliant instrumentation, remains a testament to Saint-Saëns’ versatility and ingenuity. While he might have hesitated to release the work in full during his lifetime, today it stands as a celebration of nature, humor, and the joys of music itself.