A SALUTE TO FEATHERS, FUR, AND FINSAn appreciation of Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens
Harrumph. Phooey. And piffle. Dave has gone off to a concert tonight and left us behind--again. "You guys don't want to go out on a cold night like this," he said. "And besides, I don't have enough money to pay your way. Plushies don't get discounts at the ticket window, you know." Then, much to our annoyance, he left. Dash it all, we love classical music. Why can't we go, too?
"So, what should we do?" said Nora. "Hmmm, maybe chew up his slippers," said Holly. "Maybe, uh, I don't know, leave a long and rude message on his answering machine?" suggested Renfield. Buddy laughed impishly. "Hows about we, y'know, leave a little surprise in his yogurt? I'm workin' up a horsechoker of a hairball, know what I'm saying?" "Now, now, folks," I said, holding up a paw in an attempt to stop this senseless scheming. "Let's make the best of it. We've got a huge record collection right here that we can mine for great music. Let's pick something and give it a good listen. Something classical and fun. What do you say?" We rifled through the record cabinet and pulled out various possibilities. Then Renfield found the perfect piece. "Let's hear this one," he said. We all eagerly agreed and put the disc on the turntable.
Camille Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals is a set of orchestral character pieces, each of which is meant to describe a particular animal, usually by mimicking the sounds it makes or characterizing the way it moves or carries itself. The piece is scored for two solo pianos and a small orchestra of flute, piccolo, clarinet, xylophone, glass harmonica (usually replaced these days by celesta or glockenspiel in performance), and strings. This Carnival is a humorous, often parodistic work. Saint-Saens only allowed the piece to be performed twice during his lifetime (once publicly by the Societe de la Trompette and once in a private performance requested by Franz Liszt, the famous piano virtuoso and composer who was a close friend of Saint-Saens), likely because he feared the work would hurt his reputation as a serious composer. Only the movement "The Swan" was published before the composer's death; that particular movement became a stunningly popular work with cellists and audiences alike, remaining one of Saint-Saens's most successful pieces for many years afterward.
The work is in fourteen movements:
I. "Introduction and Royal March of the Lion"--is very regal and grand, featuring a full, swaggering figure in the strings and fast, running scales in the pianos that convincingly mimic lion roars.
II. "Hens and Cocks"--is a humorously nervous movement, with jittery string figures that suggest scratching, clucking hens and staccato figures followed by trills in the pianos that sound much like crowing roosters.
III. "Wild Asses"--the great running speed of these beasts is evoked by the use of frantic, intense scalar passagework in the two pianos. There is no orchestral accompaniment here.
IV. "Tortoises"--Saint-Saens makes clever use of parody to suggest the slow-motion torpor of these creatures by quoting the famous can-can melody from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. Normally performed at breakneck tempo, the tune here is played painfully slowly by low-register strings, surrounded by a throbbing triplet accompaniment in the pianos. Occasional use of stumbling dissonances completes the picture of this painfully poky reptile.
V. "The Elephant"--consists of a brisk, but lumbering and clumsy waltz melody played by the contrabasses and supported by an earnest piano accompaniment. A parodistic quote from Berlioz's Valse des Sylphes occurs here.
VI. "Kangaroos"--is scored just for the two pianos and consists of clipped, irregular phrases that suggest the hopping of startled roos.
VII. "The Aquarium"--a tankful of peacefully swimming fish is evoked by slow, languorous music which is decorated by delicate filigree material in the glass harmonica. The effect is placid and serene.
VIII. "Personages with Long Ears"--suddenly breaks the contemplative mood in unmistakable fashion. Scored just for the violins, the sounds emitted here leave no doubt that these "personages" are donkeys.
IX. "The Cuckoo in the Forest"--a quiet, cryptic passage in the pianos is continually interrupted by a cuckoo-ing clarinet.
X. "The Aviary"--busy, yet relaxed melodic figures run through the pianos and flute over a rustling string accompaniment. The similarity in sound to a flock of mixed birds is very noticeable.
XI. "Pianists"--well, what can be said? Some pianists are beastlike! Our intrepid piano pair plays a keyboard exercise passage over and over, transposing up a step each time. They are asked in the score to miss some notes while they play. The strings grouse out short commentary chords and figures in interruption.
XII. "Fossils"--is an extremely parodistic movement. Here, Saint-Saens sardonically interweaves numerous overly-familiar melodies, including two French nursery rhymes ("J'ai du bon tabac" and "Ah vous dirais-je maman"), a snippet of the aria "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville, and his own Danse Macabre into a most curious entity. Saint-Saens evidently felt these melodies were so famous that they had become museum fossils, worthy only of residing among dinosaur bones and pickled jars of worms.
XIII. "The Swan"--as suggested above is a work for solo cello with piano accompaniment. The movement is warm and expressive, evoking the gliding grace of a contemplative swimming swan.
XIV. "Finale"--is a merry closer, which recapitulates snippets from many of the previous movements. Suggestions of the lion, fossils, wild asses, hens and cocks, kangaroos, cuckoo, and pianists pass quickly in succession. The "Personages with Long Ears" get their two pennies worth in just before the final chords.
So, is Carnival of the Animals a good piece? I say yes, with a few modest reservations. Parody has a notoriously short shelf life (if you don't believe me, take a look at an old "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in" show sometime--talk about dated material!), but for some reason, the parody elements work well here over repeated listenings. I believe this occurs because we don't need to know the joke to like the movement in question. In "The Elephant," for example, one can enjoy the hulking contrabass melody and not at all know a Berlioz waltz is being quoted here. And "Fossils" somehow manages to suggest lifeless skeletons not only by its employment of well-worn ditties, but also by its prominent use of xylophone (an instrument that conjures up the image of clattering bones very well), its clipped and angular rhythmic sense, and its curiously exuberant use of minor mode melody; somehow, it all comes up femurs and clavicles to me.
The movement "Pianists" seems a bit ham-handed. Holly quite rightly pointed out to me the other day that one cannot ordinarily portray incompetence effectively by writing poor-quality music or by playing music sloppily. The joke tends to get lost in the lack of technique. One of the best performances of this movement I've ever heard featured the pianists playing their parts flawlessly (if rather mechanically); the music itself conveys the humor well enough without resorting to the sloppy execution asked for in the score by Saint-Saens.
Other movements work well enough, but raise nagging doubts. For example, the "Cuckoo in the Woods" section is a bit long for my taste. And "The Swan" shows its age a little bit, seeming a bit too much like a relic from a bygone era when repressed ladies fanned themselves and swooned with delight over the latest hackneyed parlor piano potboiler. But these reservations are not enough to spoil the generally positive view of the work we all seem to share.
After a good long listen and some spirited aesthetic discussion, I gave a roar of a yawn and said, "Let's break it up. It's late, and Nora needs her beauty sleep--right honey?" She nodded and smiled sleepily. She, Renfield, and I padded off to the piano, while Buddy and Holly ambled away in the general direction of the bedroom. I for one am glad the evening ended with some fine music and no shenanigans. But perhaps I spoke too soon. Shortly before I fell asleep, I could have sworn I heard someone open the refrigerator, pop open a yogurt tin, and make a coughing sound. I wonder....
(transcribed by David Cleary)
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