Carnival of the Animals
November 4, 2018: Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, pianos; Yoobin Son, flute; Pascual Martinez-Fortese, clarinet; Sheryl Staples, violin; Qian-Qian Li, violin; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Eileen Moon, cello; Tim Cobb, bass; Barry Centanni, xylophone
Saint-Saëns’s popularity as a pianist, organist, and composer was so great that in the 1890s his picture appeared in a series of cards depicting famous people included with packets of chocolate, in the same way that pictures of famous baseball players were wrapped with bubble gum in America. (The bubble gum disappeared from such packets only in the twenty-first century.) He naturally composed works featuring his own instruments, but he also composed operas, symphonies, chamber music, and many songs. Most of these were serious pieces, but he also had a sense of humor, which surfaced, for example, in his Odors of Paris for piano, harp, trumpet, bagpipe, tin whistle, bird warbler, cuckoo, quail, bass drum, and humming top. He never published the piece, however, for fear it would damage his reputation.
For the same reason, he did not allow his Carnival of the Animals to be published or played in public while he was still alive, though it was played in private performances. Saint-Saëns composed the piece in just a few days in February 1886 as a surprise for the annual Shrove Tuesday concert of his cellist friend Charles-Joseph Lebouc. The two first performed it with a small group of instrumentalists—two pianos, flute doubling piccolo, clarinet, glass harmonica (now usually played on glockenspiel or celesta), xylophone, and string quintet—though the work has since been played more often by a larger orchestra. The first public performance took place on February 25, 1922, only two months after Saint-Saëns died. He was proved right in a way: the piece became so popular that much of his “serious” music was overlooked.
Saint-Saëns’s inspired portrayals go beyond typical animal specimens to include pianists, fossils, and even habitats, as in Aviary and Aquarium. Often a famous actor or the conductor will describe the pieces during modern performances, especially for educational or young people’s concerts—or they recite the delightful accompanying poems that Ogden Nash wrote in 1949. Many others have since supplied humorous verses, among them Peter Schikele, Bruce Adolphe, and John Lithgow. This afternoon’s performance is enhanced by Frances Button’s amusing poems. Saint-Saëns’s fourteen movements include:
- The Introduction and Royal March of the Lion: The king of beasts is presented in a majestic march. The lion’s roars are heard in the piano parts.
- Hens and Roosters: The pianos and strings, with the addition of clarinet, depict pecking and squawking.
- Wild Tibetan Donkeys: These animals are known for their speed and are imitated by the two pianos alone in fast, running notes.
- Turtles: Saint-Saëns made a great joke here by transforming Jacques Offenbach’s famous and lively can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld into a piece representing some of nature’s slowest animals.
- The Elephant: The composer continues his fun by having the bass line represent the elephant with a lumbering version of a delicate, fairy-like piece by Hector Berlioz called “Dance of the Sylphs.” The composer also recalls a bit of the Scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, another exquisite bit of fairy music.
- Kangaroos: The pianists represent these jumpers, sometimes taking short hops and sometimes making giant leaps.
- Aquarium: Rippling figures create a beautiful water picture. The part usually played by the glockenspiel was originally intended for the glass harmonica. This instrument, invented by Benjamin Franklin, was played by rubbing wet, tuned glass disks (like water goblets at the dinner table).
- Characters with Long Ears: The raucous braying of mules is imitated by the violins alone.
- The Cuckoo in the Depth of the Woods: The pianos play muted chords while the clarinet adds the voice of the cuckoo.
- Aviary: This habitat houses the fluttering creatures depicted by the flute while the strings play tremolo (quick repeated notes) and the pianos add bird calls.
- Pianists: The composer makes fun of beginning pianists practicing their exercises.
- Fossils: Here the xylophone suggests old bones. Saint-Saëns quotes six old tunes or “fossils” of music: his own Danse macabre (which had also used xylophone to suggest skeletons), French folk songs “J’ai du bon tabac” (I have some good tobacco), “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” (Ah! I’ll tell you, Mother, also known as “Twinkle, Twinkle” or “Baa-Baa Black Sheep”), “Au clair de la lune” (In the moonlight), and “Partant pour la Syrie” (Leaving for Syria), and finally an aria from Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville.
- The Swan: This most famous movement, written for the composer’s cellist friend, was the only part of the Carnival that Saint-Saëns allowed to be published in his lifetime. The piece was made into a very popular ballet even while the composer was alive, and its beautiful melody has been arranged for almost every instrument.
- Finale: The work closes with a grand mixture of several of the animals we’ve met: the lion, the wild Tibetan donkeys, a few hens, roosters, and kangaroos, and, at the end, some jeers from the long-eared characters.
© Jane Vial Jaffe