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The Carnival of the Animals

January 31, 2010 – Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, flute; Stephen Williamson, clarinet; Yoon Kwon, violin; Abraham Appleman, viola; Joel Noyes, cello; Timothy Cobb, bass; Gregory Zuber, xylophone; Gareth Icenogle, narrator

Camille Saint-Saëns started life as one of history’s most celebrated child prodigies. His extraordinary level of talent, temperament, and musical knowledge often invited positive comparisons with Felix Mendelssohn. Like Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns composed fluently from his earliest years and became renowned while still a boy as one of the greatest pianists and organists of his day. As adults, both composers became known for their total musicianship, conservative tastes, classically refined sensibilities, and flawless compositional technique. And, like Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns became a highly influential teacher and a well-educated polymath, whose extramusical interests ranged freely across such diverse fields as mathematics, botany, archaeology, poetry, literature, and astrology.

Unlike Mendelssohn, however, Camille Saint-Saëns lived long enough to see his musical oeuvre become obsolete. His 86 years spanned two completely different musical eras, beginning during the time of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms, and ending during the period of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Gershwin. The older he became, the more stubbornly he clung to the music of the past. He grew impatient with forward-looking composers such as Jules Massenet, Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss, and Vincent D’Indy, and his increasing prickliness often drew critical fire.

Fortunately, his innate brilliance and sense of fun always attracted a devoted circle of friends and admirers. In 1886, while vacationing in a small Austrian village, he decided to amuse his friends by composing the delightful zoölogical fantasy The Carnival of the Animals. Although the piece was a hit with his colleagues, Saint-Saëns became concerned that it would be considered too frivolous by the public at large and might even harm his reputation as a “serious” composer. With the exception of the touching cello solo, The Swan, he allowed only private performances of The Carnival of the Animals during his lifetime. After his death in 1921, the piece was finally published, and it quickly became one of Saint-Saëns’ most popular works.

Inside jokes abound, as Saint-Saëns often pokes fun at other composers by inserting sly, incongruous musical references into the various animals’ portraits. The Tortoise, for instance, takes the frenetic, high kicking Can-Can from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld and transforms it into a laggardly dirge. Similarly, The Elephant lumbers through ponderous versions of Hector Berlioz’s delicate Dance of the Sylphs and Mendelssohn’s gossamer Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Nor is Saint-Saëns above poking fun at himself. In The Fossils he parodies his own maniacal waltz Danse Macabre, turning the original xylophone solo into a rackety, duple-meter skeleton dance. In the end, no one escapes entirely unscathed, least of all his critics, who are portrayed as asses in “People with Long Ears,” and whom we hear braying away toward the end of the whirlwind Finale.

By Michael Parloff

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