by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)

Written in 1886

Following our theme of nature, in this week’s choice we have a humorous look at the animal kingdom with “The Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens.

The piece, which has 14 short movements, is great fun for all ages. Saint-Saens admitted enjoying composing it so much that he put the “serious” work of writing his 3rd Symphony to one side until it was finished. However he was so worried that such a light-hearted piece would ruin his reputation as a composer that he instructed that apart from “The Swan” it should only be published after his death. Consequently it only had a few private house-performances for his close friends. It was an instant success when it was finally published in1922, and now it is one of his best loved works.

I have included two very different recordings this time. The first has comic verses by Frances Button recited between each movement in a live concert given by members of the New York Philharmonic. The piece is written for an unusual combination of instruments – 2 pianos, string quartet, double bass, flute/piccolo, clarinet and xylophone (and glass harmonica usually played on glockenspiel these days).

The other recording played with a larger orchestra has the added interest of paintings, drawings and visual animations made by Manchester based pianist Tom Scott (who also produced the animations for the Nutcracker Suite Rachel Whibley shows in her Snowman Tour each Christmas).

I enjoyed both versions so much I thought I’d like to share them with you too.

Each creature is depicted in a separate movement, many of them in a humorous way with jokes on many levels. In the closing Carnival Parade we have our final glimpse of a few as they pass by at great speed. see how many you can spot (Clue: The Donkey has the last laugh!)

I “Introduction et marche royale du lion” (Introduction and Royal March of the Lion)
II “Poules et coqs” (Hens and Roosters)
III “Hémiones (animaux véloces)” (Wild Donkeys Swift Animals)
IV “Tortues” (Tortoises)
V “L’Éléphant” (The Elephant)
VI “Kangourous” (Kangaroos)
VII “Aquarium”
VIII “Personnages à longues oreilles” (Characters with Long Ears)
IX “Le Coucou au fond des bois” (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods)
X “Volière” (Aviary)
XI “Pianistes” (Pianists)
XII “Fossiles” (Fossils)
XIII “Le cygne” (The Swan)
XIV Final (Finale)

Signposts for Exploration

Listen out for the funny ways that Saint-Saens portrays his animals. I’m sure you will instantly recognise the roaring of the lions, the braying donkeys, the clucking of chickens and the cock-a-doodle-doo of the rooster.

Some of the jokes are more subtle, for instance in Fossils Saint-Saens quotes his own composition “Danse Macabre” using the xylophone to imitate the sound of the dancing skeletons. He also includes some “musical fossils”. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (attributed to Mozart) and some very old French folksongs, “Au Clair de la Lune” and “J’ai un bon Tabac”. He even quotes from Rossinni’s Barber of Seville, written 70 years earlier.

In “Personages with long ears” as well as giving a very life-like impersonation of a donkey, he has a dig at the critics – Saint-Saens writing this pieces following a disastrous concert tour.

The double bass is the obvious choice of instrument for portraying the Elephant, but by borrowing themes from other composers’ pieces (Mendelssohn and Berlioz) depicting fairies he conjures up a ridiculous image of an elephant in a tutu!

The clever sequencing of movements to achieve maximum contrast, such as the incredible speed of the Hémiones (thought to be a type of wild Tibetan donkey) followed by the ridiculous image of tortoises doing the Can-Can.

Similarly the almost hypnotic effect of the cuckoo in the depths of the wood, where the clarinet plays its simple two note song off-stage, contrasts with the fluttering sound of the aviary featuring the flute playing continuous demi-semi-quavers. Perhaps Saint-Saens was having a joke with these two players who sat next to each other.

But probably the funniest movement of all is “Les Pianists”. The sheer cheek of including them as part of the animal kingdom and instructing them to play their scales and exercises in public as if they were beginners (out of time and with fistfuls of wrong notes) is ridiculous enough, but on another level we have an image of the strange species caged for years of its life, practising to reach the perfection we normally hear in the concert hall.

There are also moments of incredible beauty, especially in the Aquarium which achieves a shimmering sonority using the glass harmonica. And last of all the incredibly beautiful Swan featuring the cello in the most elegant gliding melody, accompanied by the pianos producing a wonderful rippling effect.


The Dying Swan

The Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova sprang to international fame in 1905 with her ground-breaking portrayal of the Dying Swan, using Saint-Saens music to produce such delicate and realistic movements that they influenced every generation of dancers who have followed since. Interestingly she actually kept swans in her garden to study the way they behaved and imitate them in her ballet.

Here is some rare historic footage of this incredible ballerina doing her signature dance. It is followed by an amazing interpretation by the American dancer Lil Buck, obviously influenced by Pavlova, but bringing in modern dance moves (including Michael Jackson’s moonwalking).

There is also an interesting link with Daphnis and Chloe (my choice from a few weeks back) as Anna Pavlova was the prima ballerina for the company “Ballet Russe” which produced the ballet in 1911.

My Animal’s Weirder than Your Animal

Why don’t you try drawing or painting a picture of your favourite animal – it can be real or imagined. You could also write a poem or even make a short composition about a creature. We would love to see your work so you could send it to (and the weirdest ones will go into the bulletin!)


Follow the score

As in other weeks we have included a link to the score for more advanced students. This recording has the score and music running simultaneously.


Play Some of the Carnival Yourself!

We know that some of you have already been learning some movements from this piece, including The Swan and The Elephant. If you would like to make a recording of your performance we can include it in the Virtual Concert Hall, or you could submit if for the Dark Peak Young Musicians of the Year competition at the end of the year.