Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) (1886)
I. Introduction et marche royale du lion (Introduction and Royal March of the Lion) [0:00] II. Poules et coqs (Hens and Roosters) [1:58] III. Hémiones – animaux véloces (Wild Asses – quick animals) [2:42] IV. Tortues (Tortoises) [3:22] V. L’éléphant (The Elephant) [5:24] VI. Kangourous (Kangaroos) [6:55] VII. Aquarium [7:51] VIII. Personnages à longues oreilles (Characters with Long Ears) [9:58] IX. Le coucou au fond des bois (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods) [10:35] X. Volière (Aviary) [12:40] XI. Pianistes (Pianists) [13:52] XII. Fossiles (Fossils) [15:15] XIII. Le cygne (The Swan) [16:41] XIV. Finale [19:40]
This is a famous musical suite by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), written while on vacation in Austria in 1886. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of flute/piccolo, clarinet (B flat and C), two pianos, glass harmonica, xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass – in this recording, a full orchestral string section is used, and instead of the glass harmonica, there is a glockenspiel. Saint-Saëns believed that the work was too frivolous to publish during his lifetime, and for this reason, he only gave private performances to his close friends. He left a provision for it to be published posthumously, so the Carnival of the Animals only received a formal premiere one year after the composer’s death.
Each of the fourteen movements depicts a different animal, often with plenty of humour and wit. The first is the majestic march of the king of the animals – the lion – played by strings and pianos. The low, rumbling octave figure passed between the pianos is, of course, the lion’s mighty roar. The second movement (for pianos, clarinet, violins and violas) sees hens and roosters squawking while pecking at grains on the ground. The distinctive theme played by the piano is the rooster’s “cock a doodle doo” call. Next, Tibetan wild asses – portrayed by the two pianos in unison – gallop frenetically through the scene. In contrast, the next movement for strings and piano depicts the slow, laborious movement of tortoises. This satirical section takes its main theme from the famous Galop infernal (or the can-can) in Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” – but it is played exceedingly slowly. Then, the double bass and piano play a pompous, heavy-handed dance for the elephant. The thematic material derives from the scherzo in Mendelssohn’s incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the ballet of the sylphs in Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust”. The brief sixth movement sees two pianos play an abrupt, bouncy figure depicting hopping kangaroos. Next, we find ourselves inside the shimmering water of an aquarium full of graceful fish. This movement is played by strings, pianos, flute, and glockenspiel. The pianos play a high rolling ostinato – one in decuplets and the other in sextuplets. There follows a short movement for violins that sound like braying donkeys; perhaps Saint-Saëns meant the donkeys to represent asinine music critics. Next, the pianos and an offstage clarinet play a slow movement where a cuckoo’s call breaks the quiet of the woods. The tenth movement for flute, piano and strings depicts an aviary abuzz with quiet activity, over which a tropical bird (the flute) sings a melody full of trills and scales. Then, we see a very different type of animal – pianists (who, after all, are primates). The two pianists awkwardly practice scale patterns similar to those found in Hanon exercises. The whole time, they stumble over notes and break unison – evidently they need more practice. Three loud unresolved chords lead into the next movement for strings, pianos, clarinet and xylophone, depicting fossils. The hollow sound of the xylophone evokes bones clacking together. The melody is from Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre”, the dance of skeletons. Other musical allusions in this movement include “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman” (a.k.a. “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), “Partant pour la Syrie”, the nursery rhymes “Au clair de la lune” and “J’ai du bon tabac”, and a snippet from the aria “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville”. The series of allusions is itself a musical joke, since these old tunes are cultural fossils. The penultimate movement played by the cello and pianos shows the graceful gliding of a swan over a rippling lake. This very well-known section has become a stand-alone staple of the cello repertoire as well as the brief Fokine ballet “The Dying Swan”. Last comes the finale for the full ensemble, where themes from previous movements are reprised and combined to close the suite with excitement and panache.
Pianists: Vivian Troon, Roderick Elms Conductor: Andrea Licata Royal Philharmonic Orchestra