Like a trip to the zoo or an uncle's bad jokes, The Carnival of the Animals is supposed to be fun. So fun, in fact, that composer Camille Saint-Saens feared it would ruin his image. Though he banned most of it from public performance until after its death, it is among his biggest hits today. The French composer was supposed to be working on his third symphony when he took a break to compose Carnival in a small Austrian village in 1886. Though he had a great time writing it, he worried the humorous piece would harm his reputation as a serious musician. Insisting the work be performed in private, he allowed only the iconic cello movement The Swan to be published during his lifetime.
The French Romantic composer's bit of fun makes for an eclectic and imaginative lullaby. Each of the suite's 14 movements introduces us to a different animal or group of animals, with a small number of instruments mimicking their voices or the way they move. Starting with the lion's roar and slowing to reflect the elephant's bulk, Saint-Saens pokes fun at the music of his time.
With just stringed instruments and piano, he illustrates a tortoise's plodder with an ultra-slow version of Jacques Offenbach's Galop infernal (known by many as the "Can-Can). In the shortest movement, Personages with Long Ears, he creates a conversation between two braying donkeys with loud, high violin notes. It has been written that Saint-Saens was playing a joke on critics by comparing them to these beasts. Perhaps even more satirical is the eleventh movement, Pianists, in which the composer makes fun of his own kind while mimicking young musicians' clumsy scale exercises.
Humor aside, Carnival also journeys into peaceful territory. An isolated clarinet creates a scene of a bird calling though a forest (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods). In the dreamlike Aquarium, keyboard instruments echo like a music box over haunting violin and viola chords. Near the very end, the melancholy Swan makes a case for why, despite all the jokes within the suite, we should take Saint-Saens for the serious composer he wanted to be. The piece's finale mirrors the lion's royal entrance while gathering the voices of the other animals. The braying donkeys—or the critics, if that rumor is true—have one last laugh before the triumphant final chords.
Hailey Colwell is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of Theatre Corrobora.
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