The Kennedy Center

Carnival of the Animals

About the Work

Camillle Saint-Saëns Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
© Richard Freed

When Saint-Saëns composed this ";Grand Zoological Fantasy," early in 1886, he had no intention of offering the work to the public; he simply thought to provide an entertainment for his friends at Carnival time. Following the first private performance, the work was given again at the request of Saint-Saëns's old friend and supporter Franz Liszt, shortly before his death in July of that year, and then Saint-Saëns specifically prohibited further performances of it until after his own death, excepting only the beautiful penultimate section, ";The Swan," for cello. The public premiere took place on February 26, 1922, a little more than two months after the composer's death, and The Carnival of the Animals quickly became one of Saint-Saëns's most popular works.

The original score called for only a dozen instruments: two pianos, a flute, a clarinet, a glockenspiel, a glass harmonica, xylophone, string quartet, and double bass. Nowadays the glass harmonica is replaced by a celesta (an instrument not yet available in 1886), the strings are usually beefed up to orchestral proportions, and some performances include recitation of verses written for the work by one of several poets or humorists. The first such text was provided by Ogden Nash, about sixty years ago; the most recent, and most successful, is one by Peter Schickele. Mr. Schickele recited his text, with Leonard Slatkin conducting, in the New York Philharmonic's New Year's Eve concert at the end of 1991, and have since collaborated in a performance of The Carnival of the Animals with the National Symphony Orchestra on June 10, 2000.

The work's fourteen brief sections are as follows:
INTRODUCTION AND ROYAL MARCH OF THE LION. Prefatory rumblings in the pianos and strings lead to a fanfare from the former and a majestic march from the latter. The pianos roar as the march proceeds, and then take it up themselves.

HENS AND COCKS. A barnyard scene with no apologies to Rameau, whose harpsichord piece La Poule (";The Hen") is parodied here.

WILD ASSES. A workout for the two pianists, chasing each other up and down the keyboard by way of prelude to their appearances later in the work.

TORTOISES. The famous cancan from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld is slowed down to near-motionlessness, the notes following one another in such a way that the melody barely takes shape till the piece is over.

THE ELEPHANT. Yet another famous French piece is parodied here: the exquisite Dance of the Sylphs from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, not only slowed down but assigned to the double bass for a truly elephantine character. KANGAROOS are portrayed in leaps by the two pianos alone.

THE AQUARIUM. Pianos and muted strings evoke the watery setting, highlighted here and there by the flute or clarinet. The darting moves of the finny creatures themselves is represented by glissandos on the celesta. PERSONAGES WITH LONG EARS are identified by the braying of the violins.

CUCKOO IN THE WOODS. The pianos' exaggerated solemnity is glaringly at odds with the loopy cuckoo call from the clarinet.

THE AVIARY. No parody in this beautiful little scherzo for the flute and fluttering strings.

PIANISTS. Saint-Saëns, one of the most admired pianists of his time, apparently felt that, of all the creatures represented, these were the ones that most belonged in a zoo.

FOSSILS. A tune from Saint-Saëns's own Danse macabre, in somewhat altered rhythm, is played on the xylophone; the clarinet burlesques a French folk song and the aria ";Una voce poco fa," from Rossini's Barber of Seville.

THE SWAN. Saint-Saëns sets off his melting cello tune with an uncontrived elegance that keeps it from drooping into mawkishness.

FINALE. A grand vaudeville conclusion à la Offenbach, with some of the earlier tunes recalled and the long-eared personages ascendant at the end, and the whole polished off with a brisk Rossinian cadence.