Pride Lands Online


A review of The Model Animals by Francis Poulenc

The impossible had finally happened. Did they discover the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa? Did Newt Gingrich become a liberal Democrat in the FDR tradition? Did Chevy Chase finally appear in a good movie? No, it was even more amazing than that. Dave finally relented and brought us to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert last weekend. We had of course begged him mercilessly for months in hopes that he'd take us along with him. Finally, he gave in.

"But there's a catch, you guys," he said. "I'll have to sneak you in. I can't afford five more tickets." So we plushies devised a foolproof scheme, ingenious yet simple, which Dave reluctantly went along with.

"Ticket, please," said the man at the door. But Dave was struggling mightily to produce the wanted ducat from out of his pants pocket. And no small wonder, because four of us were hidden beneath his winter coat. Holly was burrowed in to Dave's left, Nora clung uneasily to his right, Renfield was snuggled down the front of his pants, and I was squashed on top of Dave's chest, though at least I could see through an opening in the coat front. Quite frankly, I was surprised no one suspected we were being smuggled in. I saw Dave's reflection in the the big lobby mirror--and he looked like the college kid in the movie Animal House who was trying to sneak out of the grocery store with half the meat section stuffed under his sweater. Buddy, the comparatively lucky one of us five, was perched on Dave's head, trying most mightily to look like a hat.

"Sir, I need your ticket," said the doorman while Dave fumbled nervously. At this point, a plushie meerkat paw poked out from underneath the coat and stuffed a ticket into Dave's hand.

"Oh, heh, here it is," Dave said as he tried, with no subtlety or success whatever, to cram Renfield's paw back under his coat. "Ouch! Renfield! Watch it with those claws," Dave hissed.

The doorman did a double-take worthy of Oliver Hardy and I heard him mutter to himself, "That's it. No more peach schnapps with dinner for me ever again."

Dave tottered past the doorman along the corridor. When we got halfway down the hallway, he paused and said, "We're in, you guys. We made it! It won't be much further now."

I felt an uneasy stirring on Dave's right. "Oh, I wonder if I'm claustrophobic," whined Nora.

An imposingly hefty dowager with a fox stole and a snooty countenance looked at Dave. "My, that's certainly an unusual hat you have on," she sniffed.

"Yes, ma'am, it is," Dave replied. "It's er, uh, a lion-skin cap."

"Pity," she said as she peered through her spectacles and wrinkled her nose disapprovingly. "It looks like you got a factory irregular. What a dreadful, moth-eaten specimen."

The resultant raspberry noise emanating from Buddy in reply would have made a 1920's Bronx tough-guy proud. The woman scowled and flounced angrily down the hallway.

"Hee hee," sang Holly. "Bo Diddley caught a fat cat, to make his pretty baby a Sunday hat!"

"You're a regular laugh riot, toots," Buddy shot back. "But I know that little ditty too, Babycakes. The best you can hope to be is a nanny goat, to make his pretty baby a Sunday coat."

"Why you...," growled Holly.

"Ouch!" shrieked Dave. "Watch those claws, Holly! You can settle the score with Buddy when we get to our seats."

The fidgeting on Dave's right became more pronounced. "Ohh, ohh, I'll bet I'm claustrophobic," moaned Nora.

Finally, Dave reached his seat and unfastened his coat. We piled out and scrambled into the chairs adjacent to his. Buddy, Holly, and Renfield squabbled over one program, while Nora and I looked over Dave's forearm to read his. Ah! A spectacular selection of compositions awaited us! The phenomenal "Consecration of the House" Overture by Beethoven would lead off. Brahms's wonderful Symphony no. 2 would take up the second half of the program. And a fine, neglected piece by Francis Poulenc, The Model Animals, would come just before intermission.

Originally written in 1940 as a ballet, The Model Animals--when it is heard at all these days--is performed as a suite of movements excerpted and somewhat modified from its lengthier stage version. La Fontaine's famous Aesop-like fables provide the inspiration for Poulenc's composition. In the ballet version, the stories chosen for depiction are "The Bear and the Two Companions," "The Grasshopper and the Ant," "The Lion in Love," "The Middle-aged Man and His Two Mistresses," "Death and the Woodcutter," and "The Two Cocks." Only the last four of these movements were retained for the orchestral suite. Framing these are introductory and concluding movements, "Dawn" and "The Midday Meal" respectively.

One should not expect, if one were lucky enough to see the ballet version, to observe dancers dressed as grasshoppers, lions, and chickens. Poulenc specifically notes in the score's preface that the animals here only play a symbolic role. Thus, the ant in one tale would be seen here as a miserly old woman and the lion in another fable would be seen as a rakish young man.

Unlike Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals (reviewed in Issue 2 of this publication), which is essentially an elaborate musical spoof, The Model Animals is a serious, profound work of some gravity and dignified aspiration.

I. "Dawn" is a lovely, warm movement, simultaneously wedding expressiveness with just a touch of austerity. It's a lengthy opener utilizing full, added-note chords that at times suggest the music of an urbane 1940's-1950's foreign film. Poulenc's main classical music influences, specifically Ravel, Debussy, and Stravinsky, all leave their echoes in this piece--and most especially in this first movement.

II. "The Lion in Love" continues with the lush chords of the previous movement and weds them to full, ripe orchestration and a much faster tempo. The effect produced is in fact almost hyper-Romantic, but in a nostalgic, not sardonic, way. In a certain sense, this movement might perhaps be seen as an intensification of its predecessor.

III. As one may guess from its title, "The Middle-aged Man and His Two Mistresses" is a witty, cosmopolitan work in fast tempo. One might best characterize it as a Romantic's idea of a Neo-Classic work, perhaps being most reminiscent of the fast dance movements to Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin or a harmonically updated version of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Like "The Lion in Love," this is a movement of comparatively short duration.

IV. "Death and the Woodcutter" is the most complex, weighty movement in the suite. Unlike the essentially single-idea-dominated movements previously encountered, we experience here a wide variety of tempi and musical materials. The opening is broad, grand-gestured, profoundly slow, and highly Stravinskian. Also reminiscent of Igor S. is the following quiet homophonic section, a brooding cousin to the chorale movements in Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale. The main body of the movement states and develops an expressive triple-meter melody given first by the oboe. The tempo here is moderate, not too languid, not too perky. A slower coda section with traces of the opening chorale-like materials brings the movement to a close. The effect is quite profound and moving.

V. Battles of all types rage in "The Two Cocks." The movement begins in a highly energetic and vivacious, yet unmistakably combative manner. Melodic figures stated in the strings are notably echoic of scratching hens and roosters. As the movement progresses, though, the scoring becomes heavier, the tempo slower, and the musical material more ponderous and forceful. One senses perhaps that the squabble has taken a more serious turn, possibly becoming symbolic of a more global conflict. Perhaps here Poulenc is suggesting that all such struggles, great and small, animal and human, are cut from the same cloth? One wonders, especially since he composed this work while World War II was in high gear.

VI. "The Midday Meal" is for all practical purposes a shortened repeat of the opening movement. Here, the scoring is full and transcendent, interspersed occasionally with sections that are quieter, more reflective. It's a poignant, heartfelt conclusion with a real feeling of apotheosis--and an effective ending to a fine piece.

The concert was over. What an inspired evening of spectacular music! But we weren't home free just yet. We had to be smuggled out of the hall or risk being tossed out in the street on our plushie ears--a demeaning spectacle that would ruin the whole evening for me, at least. So, Buddy hopped onto Dave's head and the rest of us wriggled back under Dave's coat into our former positions.

The squirming on Dave's right recommenced, this time with noticeable vehemence. "Ohhh, ohhh, OHHH, I'm claustrophobic! I knew it! I'm claustrophobic!" wailed Nora.

"Ouch! Nora!" groaned Dave. "Just relax till we reach the street, and keep your claws out of my back. It won't be very long until we're outside, I promise."

Dave lurched down the exit corridor and approached the door, where we waited patiently at the end of a line of people slowly filing out into the street. Just then an attractive young woman with a twinkle in her eye and an amused look on her face sidled up to Dave. She chuckled, gave him a fetching smile, and said, "Is that a meerkat in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"

"Well, uh, hello there," said Dave with a cheesy grin that would have put Young Simba and Nala to utter shame. "Have we met somewhere before? I'm Dave."

"My name's Rocio," the woman said. "I'm sure I know you from someplace; you look so familiar. Were you ever in Mexico City?"

"Um, no actually. Never been south of Phoenix. Would you pardon me for just a second?" he said.

Dave turned, looked into his coat (nearly dumping Buddy from his head in the process) and whispered, "Hey guys. Would you mind taking a cab home? I think she likes me."

Well indeed! Such nerve! I for one knew what I thought of this ill-mannered little idea of his.

"Ouch! Nick! Holly! Don't bite! Renfield! Nora! Buddy! Stop it with the darned claws already! I'll take you guys along with me! I promise!"

Ah, now, that's better, I thought to myself. Point made, so to speak.

Dave turned to Rocio and said, "How about joining me in a cup of coffee at Brighams?"

She grinned. "You sure we'll both fit?"

Dave laughed and said, "Touche. Come on, let's go. Oh, by the way, do you like plushies...?"


(transcribed by David Cleary)

{Submitted by Dave C.}
{HTML by Thumper}

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