Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
by Elizabeth Boulton
I Introduction and Royal March of the Lion
II Hens and Roosters
III Wild Asses; quick animals
V The Elephant
VIII Characters with Long Ears
IX The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods
XIII The Swan
Once described as the French Mendelssohn, Camille Saint-Saëns was talented and precocious as a child, with interests by no means confined to music. He made an early impression as a pianist. Following established French tradition, he was for nearly 20 years organist at the Madeleine in Paris and taught briefly at the École Niedermeyer, where he befriended his pupil Gabriel Fauré. He was a co-founder of the important Société Nationale de Musique with the patriotic aim of promoting contemporary French music in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/1, in which he had served in the Garde Nationale de la Seine. Prolific and versatile as a composer, he contributed to most genres of music, but by the time of his death in 1921 his popularity in France had diminished considerably, as fashions in music had changed.
In 1885 Saint-Saëns wrote a witty, uncomplicated piece called Wedding Cake (1885), which to his chagrin became so popular that he gained a temporary reputation as a ‘light’ composer. Because he wanted to be considered a composer of serious, substantial music, he suppressed Carnival of the Animals shortly after its première in the following year. However, this ‘zoological fantasy’, one of the most successful examples of humourously themed music in the repertory, has become one of the composer’s most popular works. Carnival of the Animals, cast as a suite of 14 short pieces, is scored for an ensemble comprising two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet and glockenspiel.
The work begins with a roar from the two pianos and low strings, an appropriate introduction to the “Royal March of the Lions”. The crowing and pecking of strings effectively evokes the clamour of hens and roosters, while the depiction of tortoises takes the form of a sly musical joke: a drastically slowed-down version of the famous can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). Saint-Saëns continues to parody his countrymen when he uses the “Waltz of the Sylphs” from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust (1846) in depicting elephants. Graceful and rapid leaps on the keyboard naturally describe kangaroos. Liquid, rippling sounds on the piano and a magical, serene melody characterise one of the loveliest sections of the work, a sound portrait of an aquarium. Sliding string figures give voice to mules, whose braying is sharply contrasted with the deeply mysterious beauty of the clarinet in its imitation of a cuckoo. This single bird becomes an entire aviary aflutter with airy flute solos and rapid keyboard passagework. Saint-Saëns admits pianists themselves into the menagerie, good-naturedly mocking their hours of practice with a passage that unfolds as a ponderous keyboard exercise. “Fossils” pays homage to those creatures which have suffered extinction with the suggestion of rattling bones in the xylophone, including a quotation from the composer’s own Danse macabre (1874). This is followed by the most famous movement, one so lovely that the composer permitted its publication as a solo work. “The Swan” has become a staple of every cellist’s repertoire and a favourite accompaniment for dance works. The brisk finale includes a spirited, exuberant reprise of all of the animals’ themes.