The Carnival of the Animals

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          Camille Saint-Saëns lived a long life, and was remarkable for his wide-ranging intellectual interests and abilities.  As a child he was, of course, a precocious musical talent, but even then he evinced a strong natural interest in almost every academic subject--including, but certainly not restricted to, astronomy, archaeology, mathematics, religion, Latin, and Greek.  In addition to a life of musical composition and virtuoso keyboard performance, he also enjoyed success as a music journalist, champion of early music (Handel and Bach), and leadership in encouraging French musical tradition.  His father died when he was an infant, and he grew into middle age extraordinarily devoted to his mother--his marriage at the age of forty to a nineteen-year old did not last long.  He simply left the house one day in 1881 and chose never to see her again; she died in 1950 at the age of ninety-five.    Saint-Saëns went on to live an active life, filling an important rôle in the musical life of France--as performer, composer, author, spokesman, and scholar.  He was peripatetic--researching Handel manuscripts in London, conducting concerts in Chicago and Philadelphia, visiting Uruguay and writing a hymn for their national holiday, and vacationing in the Canary Islands.  He celebrated seventy-five years of concertizing in August of 1921 in his eighty-sixth year, and died a few months later.

          The major figure in French musical life before the advent of Debussy and Ravel, in the face of the ravishing blandishments of the new musical style of the latter two composers, he nevertheless maintained his position as the grand old man of tradition in French musical composition.  His music exemplified his deep respect for traditional forms and genres, and, unlike his friend and colleague, Fauré, he contributed prolifically to all of the genres of nineteenth-century composition—symphonies, operas, concerti, and more.   And, in the midst of all this seriousness, he found time in the summer of 1886, to compose a gem—and fairly rare example—of genuine humor in symphonic literature.  What is more, one whose droll humor is not compromised by stooping to cheap effects. 

          The Carnival of the Animals was composed in an Austrian village, where he was at work on the grand “Organ Symphony,” so beloved by audiences ever since.  Nevertheless—perhaps as a break in the effort--he was tempted to write this suite of fourteen movements that humorously depict various animal friends for his students at the school where he taught (Fauré had been one of them, earlier).  It was never intended for public performance, the composer feeling that it compromised his reputation as a major composer of dignity and seriousness of purpose.  He even forbade its publication until after his death—and so the first “public” performance did not occur until 1922, thirty-six years later!

          The suite opens with a brief, dramatic introduction, followed by a stately march for the “King of Beasts” that from time to time is interrupted by the lions’ formidable roar, depicted by the ferocious, low chromatic octave scales.  “Hens and Roosters” are next, clearly pecking around (no low strings, here), with little clarinet solos and an amusing rooster crow to top it off.   Breakneck scales in the pianos herald the frenetic “Wild Asses” –and these are not your garden variety Mexican donkeys, for sure.   These asses from Asia are supercharged, and Saint-Saëns’ busy pianists nail the depiction.  The logy tortoises are next, and their ponderously slow gait is marvelously parodied by a tongue-in-cheek playing of Offenbach’s famous “Can-can” in the low strings.  It’s really slow but you can doubtless recognize it.  Following, a solo contra-bass earnestly sings a doleful little song for the elephant, without any apology at all for “borrowing” melodies from Mendelssohn and Berlioz—material that in the original was the essence of almost ephemeral lightness and grace.  Well.

          After a jerky little interlude by hopping kangaroos, we stand before a serene aquarium, as iridescent tropical fish glide to and fro. Saint-Saëns’ musical imagination then nails the hee-haws of “personages with long ears” with a super high note in the violins followed by a low “haw.”  Next, the familiar descending third of a relentless cuckoo in a tranquil “piano” forest is easy to spot, played here by the clarinet—followed by a musical aviary.  The flute as an apparently very happy bird is a familiar musical trope, and here, the pianists help out with other bird-like sounds.   Then, something completely different:  Apparently some student pianists have intruded on our little animal kingdom, and the composer (an accomplished pianist and teacher) has some fun with the scales every student pianist has to practice.  A note in the score calls for some sloppy novice playing—as we all have done—from our stalwart keyboard artists.

          Fossils are clearly not animals, but some of them undoubtedly were, and so Saint-Saëns has some fun with the xylophone rattling around like a box of prehistoric bones in the “Fossiles” movement.  Among the many musical quotes here, listen for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and some allusions to Saint-Saëns’ own Danse macabre.  Opera buffs will recognize Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa,” played by the clarinet.

          Finally, the moment arrives that everyone has been waiting for, and the swan gracefully glides into view, in the guise of a ‘cello.  It’s the only movement that the composer allowed to be published during his lifetime, and almost everyone knows it from its use in a thousand contexts.  These charming animal vignettes end with a rousing finale that in sparkling fashion pulls together many of the motifs and tunes from the previous movements.  It’s a perfect example of Saint-Saëns’ technical skill, as many of the animals jump in to end this musical zoo with his typical pizzazz.   The donkeys, however, have the last say, with unmistakable “hee-haws” from these brazen equine musical critics.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan