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A guide to Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, the animals represented and its best recordings

We explore Saint-Saëns's musical menagerie, Carnival of the Animals, and name its best recordings

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Saint-Saëns was a prodigy polymath from whom music flowed effortlessly. Symphonies, concertos, chamber works, opera – there was seemingly nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to. 1886 witnessed the single greatest success of his career, as his epic Third ‘Organ’ Symphony thundered its way around the globe.

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That same year he composed a ‘grand zoological fantasy’ in 14 movements, scored for two pianos, string quartet, double bass, flute, clarinet, glockenspiel, xylophone, and glass harmonica/celesta, which sprang from the opposite end of the musical spectrum: The Carnival of the Animals.

Saint-Saëns was so worried about the harm this plaisanterie might do to his reputation as a serious composer, that after two private performances he placed it under lock and key where it remained until after his death. Only one movement survived this embargo: The Swan.

What is Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals?

Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals, a ‘Grande fantaisie zoologique’ no less, lands with all four paws in the territory of the most popular pieces ever created. Through its pages its creatures roar, twitter, swim, rattle, bray, scamper and practise their scales with such joy and relish that it could only have been created by a mind whose freshness and imagination was second-to-none.

What inspired The Carnival of the Animals?

Parts of the piece sprang naturally from the Societé Nationale de Musique’s explorations of the French baroque for inspiration. The era of the claveçinists was full of evocations of birdsong: Couperin’s Le coucou and Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux are just a few examples of the former. Still, this wasn’t purely a French pursuit. There are precedents everywhere, if nothing quite so concentrated as Saint-Saëns’s effort. We can find barking dogs and spring-happy birds in Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, donkey sounds in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a priceless Duetto buffo di due gatti (the ‘Cat Duet’) attributed to Rossini, bird-calls galore in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and a wood-bird in Wagner’s Siegfried – to say nothing of the swan in Lohengrin. During the pro- and anti-Wagner fuss, Saint-Saëns had been protesting to Angelo Neumann, director of the opera house in Prague, that he had been one of the first advocates for Lohengrin. Soon he had a swan of his own.

What animals feature in Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals and how are they represented?

The Carnival involves a bizarre instrumental line-up: two pianos (played at the premiere by Saint-Saëns himself and Louis Diémer), string quartet, double bass, flute/piccolo (Paul Taffanel its first performer), clarinet, glass harmonica and xylophone. Whatever made him choose this odd ensemble, it works wonders, furnishing him with a terrific palette of colours and facilitating the textural clarity he valued.

The lion in Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals
Photo by History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

I. The Carnival opens, like any good circus, with a fanfare-like Introduction and parade. For March of the Lion, Saint-Saëns specifies ‘style persan’ – Persian style – implicitly adding grandeur, swagger and drama to the music’s progress, interrupted by surges of chromatic roaring from the King of the Beasts. The two pianos are joined by what sounds deceptively like a conventional string quartet plus double bass.

II. Hens and Roosters are incarnated by the upper strings and clarinet, imitating crowing, clucking and pecking galore. Ultimately they are cut off by the pianos as if abruptly beheaded by a carving knife.

III. Hémiones. Trust Saint-Saëns to include an animal that almost nobody else had heard of. These are Tibetan wild donkeys, also known as dziggetai, blessed with extraordinary fleetness of hoof. He conjures them by giving the pianists a workout that surpasses some of his own studies. Each pianist plays one line, but they are in unison throughout this fearsome sprint, and coordination must be… fun.

IV. This affectionate portrait of the supremely laid-back Tortoises finds the strings meandering along in the melody of the Galop (or Can-Can) from Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers, but at a sleepy-sounding Andante maestoso, accompanied by Mozartian triplet pulsing on the pianos.

V. The musical references and send-ups have only just begun. Now along comes the Elephant, its second theme a none-too-subtle take-off of the ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ from Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, transferred to the hefty double bass. There’s also a sideswipe at the scherzo from Mendelsohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a whiff of Meyerbeer’s ballet music Les patineurs (‘The skaters’). It all combines into a deliciously affectionate piece.

Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals
Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

VI. We’ve been to Tibet; now we’re in Australia. The Kangaroos are a swift, light-hopping variety, darting around the piano keyboards in turn with a grace-noted figuration that bears some resemblance to Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 No. 5, before pausing to rest and graze.

VII. For the Aquarium, Saint-Saëns brings in the glass harmonica, which is sometimes replaced by a glockenspiel or celeste: it is used to mirror the flute on the offbeats and provide some watery glissandos. This aquarium is a flowing, mysterious waterscape, flute and string quartet providing the melodic lines, pianos and glass harmonica the ripples and bubbles.

VIII. Thought we’d had enough donkeys? We hadn’t heard them bray yet, and violins take the spotlight to do so in Personages with Long Ears. The expression was then in use to describe uncritical opera lovers of limited sophistication – one writer talked about ‘The possessors of long ears who admire [the operas] La Juive and Hamlet but regard the word “Symphony” disdainfully.’ There’s also the possibility, of course, that they are music critics…

IX. The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods is a moment of magic: the dark forest is conjured by deep chords on the pianos and a distant clarinet, which the composer said should be off-stage, sounding the bird’s call. It is sometimes played as a comedy number, which is rather a pity.

X. Now other birds have a turn in the Aviary: the music, mainly on strings and flute, with occasional chiming and trilling from the pianos, flutters and rustles, with tremolando and pizzicato evoking the lightness of creatures on the wing. The flute solo presented a chance for the great Paul Taffanel to display his formidable abilities.

XI. Saint-Saëns, former teacher at École Niedermeyer where everyone practised in the same room, is getting his own back in Pianists. These finger exercises, scales and switches of key, aided and abetted by the strings, would leave infuriated neighbours concurring that a menagerie is exactly where they belong. The music gears up and leads straight into:

XII. Fossils. Saint-Saëns was an enthusiastic collector of these stony marvels and here relishes bringing them to life. He sends up his own tone poem Danse macabre, in which a virtuoso violin solo is played by the devil in hellish revelries eventually dissolved by dawn. The original was a waltz, but this time the fossils clank their xylophonic bones in up-tempo duple time. For contrast there are references to night-time songs ‘Au clair de la lune’ and ‘Ah, vous direz-je, Maman’ (aka ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’), a Rossini aria from The Barber of Seville (perhaps Saint-Saëns thought this the musical equivalent of a fossil) and a song called ‘J’ai du bon tabac’. Ogden Nash’s verse for this piece captured it perfectly, concluding: ‘It’s kind of fun to be extinct’.

The swan in Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

XIII. The high-jinx of the past two numbers disappears and, in The Swan, the most beautiful melody in the work sings out on solo cello, sailing over the rippling waters of the two pianos. Transcribed for other instruments innumerable times, adapted for a solo ‘The Dying Swan’ by the choreographer Mikhail Fokine for the great Anna Pavlova in 1905, the piece has rarely been out of the spotlight – but the streamlined gorgeousness of the original takes a lot of beating.

XIV. And so to the Finale, for all the instruments. In balletic fashion, there’s a grand round-up of our furry, feathered, floaty or four-footed friends, with some of their musical characters enjoying brief reprises in the rondo episodes of this light-hoofed can-can. It opens by recalling the start of the whole piece and we catch galloping glimpses of the Tibetan donkeys, chickens, kangaroos and… the personages with long ears.

And so they gallop off into the sunset. Though perhaps curiously one creature is missing: Saint-Saëns’s beloved dog.

Words by: Jessica Duchen

What is the best recording of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals?

Güher & Süher Pekinel (piano)
Radio France PO/Marek Janowski (1990)
Warner Apex 25646 21252

With its hilarious send-ups – slow-motion can-can in ‘Tortoises’, Rossini’s Barber of Seville in ‘Fossils’, Berlioz’s Waltz of the Sylphs in ‘Elephant’ – and a rollicking finale that brings everyone back for a curtain call, a first-rate performance of The Carnival of the Animals should light up the musical sky.

And that is just what Marek Janowski, working alongside one of the world’s most celebrated piano duos, achieves here. By electing to gently cajole Saint-Saëns’s humorous asides rather than milking them for all their worth, this is more Hardy than Laurel, and none the worse for that.

In ‘Tortoises’, the Pekinel twins create a magically veiled sonority that creates the impression of being experienced through a heat wave, while ‘Aquarium’ – in which the glass harmonica takes a star turn – quietly glistens like  an iridescent jewel. The octave scales of ‘Pianists’ are played dead straight until the change to thirds – the real point of the joke – is signalled by a sudden relaxing of tempo and subtle change to a more ‘effortful’ sonority.

Strangely, the very opening is played as repeated notes rather than the customary tremolandos, but in the context of such a beguiling performance this is hardly a major distraction. Janowski and colleagues join in the proceedings with alacrity and the engineering combines ambient warmth and detail to perfection.

Three more great recordings of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals

Patricia Prattis Jennings & Joseph Villa (piano)
Pittsburgh SO/Previn (1980)
Philips 442 6082 (2 discs)

For a performance with a large string ensemble, André Previn’s Pittsburgh classic reigns supreme. The humour is deftly handled and deliciously understated, tempos are superbly judged, and in ‘Personages with long ears’ Previn insists on the donkeys’ whinnying being thrown off by the violins as flying harmonics rather than taken in the safety of first position.

Jennings and Villa play their vital roles as true ensemble players rather than ‘star’ soloists, and so natural and unforced is Previn’s direction, immaculately balanced by Philips’s engineers, that one can sit back enjoy this immaculately crafted score without any distraction.

Michel Dalberto & Frank Braley (piano)
Renaud Capuçon, Esther Hoppe, Beatrice Muthebet, Gautier Capuçon, Janne Saksala, Emmanuel Pahud, Paul Meyer, Florent Jordelet (2003)
Virgin 545 6022

For something a little more adventurous, which reveals Saint-Saëns’s mini-masterpiece in all its original chamber-scale glory, the Capuçon brothers and distinguished colleagues cry out to be heard. Things arguably go a little too far in ‘Pianists’, in which the protagonists get wildly out of synch with one another, but elsewhere the uncontainable exuberance of this performance carries all before it.

Rarely has the ‘Cuckoo’ sounded quite so absurd in the context of the pianists’ chorale-like musings, while these particular ‘Fossils’ dust themselves down and lift their skirts in the air for some well-aimed high-kicks. Gautier Capuçon’s ‘Swan’ and Emmanuel Pahud’s ‘Aviary’ are sublime, and the whistle-stop finale is guaranteed to send spirits soaring.

Pascal Rogé & Cristina Ortiz (piano)
London Sinfonietta/Charles Dutoit (1977)
Decca 444 5522

If Güher and Süher Pekinel are gently persuasive and chamber-scale in their responses, pianists Pascal Rogé and Cristina Ortiz play with an outsize virtuosity that is enormously imposing. Their ‘Lion’ has very broad, powerful shoulders, their ‘Wild Asses’ gallop at phenomenal speed, and their ‘Hens and Cockerels’ peck and strut their stuff with imperious indifference.

These ‘Tortoises’ appear to float past balletically and even the ‘Elephant’ sounds as though he may have been caught off-guard wearing a tutu. Yet there is an unmistakably Gallic charm and joie de vivre about this reading which suggests that everyone is having a good time. Charles Dutoit makes rather a meal of the introduction – more César Franck than snappy curtain-raiser – but maybe that’s another in-joke.

And one to avoid…

A bit of a naughty indulgence from Eugene Ormandy and his fabulous Philadelphians. Solo lines register clearly enough – although the pianos tend to come and go a bit – but it’s those Tchaikovsky-in-overdrive strings that dominate. For ‘Elephant’ read ‘Herd of Elephants’ as the entire double-bass section gives your woofers an aerobic work-out. It’s gloriously OTT, but probably not quite what Saint-Saëns originally had in mind.

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This article originally featured in the June 2010 issue of BBC Music Magazine.