Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) is a musical suite of fourteen movements by the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. The orchestral work has a duration between 22 and 30 minutes.
Le carnaval was composed in February 1886 while Saint-Saëns was vacationing in a small Austrian village. It was originally scored for a chamber group of flute/piccolo, clarinet (B flat and C), two pianos, glass harmonica, xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, but is usually performed today with a full orchestra of strings, and with a glockenspiel substituting for the rare glass harmonica.
Saint-Saëns, apparently concerned that the piece was too frivolous and likely to harm his reputation as a serious composer, suppressed performances of it and only allowed one movement, Le cygne, to be published in his lifetime. Only small private performances were given for close friends like Franz Liszt.
Saint-Saëns did, however, include a provision which allowed the suite to be published after his death. It was first performed on 26 February 1922, and it has since become one of his most popular works. It is a favorite of music teachers and young children, along with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. In fact, it is very common to see any combination of these three works together on modern CD recordings - a handy tool for class work.
There are fourteen movements:
I Introduction et marche royale du lion (Introduction and Royal March of the Lion)
Strings and two pianos: The introduction begins with the pianos playing a bold tremolo, under which the strings enter with a stately theme. The pianos play a pair of scales going in opposite directions to conclude the first part of the movement. The pianos then introduce a march theme that they carry through most of the rest of the introduction. The strings provide the melody, with the pianos occasionally taking low runs of octaves which suggest the roar of a lion, or high ostinatos. The movement ends with a fortissimo note from all the instruments used in this movement.
II Poules et coqs (Hens and Roosters)
Strings without cello and double-bass, two pianos, with clarinet: This movement is centered around a pecking theme played in the pianos and strings, which is quite reminiscent of chickens pecking at grain. The clarinet plays small solos above the rest of the players at intervals. The piano plays a theme based on the crowing of a rooster's Cock a Doodle Doo.
III Hémiones (animaux véloces) (Wild Asses; quick animals)
Two pianos: The animals depicted here are quite obviously running, an image induced by the constant, feverishly fast up-and-down motion of both pianos playing scales in octaves. These are Asses that come from Tibet, which are known for their great speed.
IV Tortues (Tortoises)
Strings and piano: A slightly satirical movement which opens with a piano playing a pulsing triplet figure in the higher register. The strings play a maddeningly slow rendition of the famous 'Galop infernal' from Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld.
V L'éléphant (The Elephant)
Double-bass and piano: This section is marked Allegro pomposo, the perfect caricature for an elephant. The piano plays a waltz-like triplet figure while the bass hums the melody beneath it. Like "Tortues," this is also a musical joke - the thematic material is taken from the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Berlioz's "Dance of the Sylphs" from The Damnation of Faust. The two themes were both originally written for high, lighter-toned instruments (flute and various other woodwinds, and violin, accordingly); the joke is that Saint-Saëns moves this to the lowest and heaviest-sounding instrument in the orchestra, the double bass.
VI Kangourous (Kangaroos)
Two pianos: The main figure here is a pattern of 'hopping' fifths preceded by grace notes.
Strings without double-bass, two pianos, flute, and glass harmonica: This is one of the more musically rich movements. The melody is played by the flute, backed by the strings, on top of tumultuous, glissando-like runs in the piano. The first piano plays a descending ten-on-one ostinato, in the style of the second of Chopin's études, while the second plays a six-on-one. These figures, plus the occasional glissando from the glass harmonica — often played on celesta or glockenspiel—are evocative of a peaceful, dimly-lit aquarium. According to British music journalist Fritz Spiegl, there is a recording of the movement featuring virtuoso harmonica player Tommy Reilly - apparently he was hired by mistake instead of a player of the glass harmonica.
VIII Personnages à longues oreilles (Characters with Long Ears)
Two violins: This is the shortest of all the movements. The violins alternate playing high, loud notes and low, buzzing ones (in the manner of a donkey's braying "hee-haw").
IX Le coucou au fond des bois (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods)
Two pianos and clarinet: The pianos play large, soft chords while the clarinet plays a single two-note ostinato, over and over; a C and an A flat, mimicking the call of a cuckoo bird. Saint-Saens states in the original score that the clarinetist should be offstage.
X Volière (Aviary)
Strings, piano and flute: The high strings take on a background role, providing a buzz in the background that is reminiscent of the background noise of a jungle. The cellos and basses play a pick up cadence to lead into most of the measures. The flute takes the part of the bird, with a trilling tune that spans much of its range. The pianos provide occasional ping and trills of other birds in the background. The movement ends very quietly after a long ascending scale from the flute.
XI Pianistes (Pianists)
Strings and two pianos: This movement is a glimpse of what few audiences ever get to see: the pianists practicing their scales. The scales of C, D flat, D and E flat are covered. Each one starts with a trill on the first and second note, then proceeds in scales with a few changes in the rhythm. Transitions between keys are accomplished with a blasting chord from all the instruments between scales. After the four scales, the key changes back to C, where the pianos play a trill-like pattern in thirds, in the style of Charles-Louis Hanon or Carl Czerny, while the strings play a small part underneath. This movement is unusual in that the last three blasted chords do not resolve the piece, but rather lead into the next movement, with a pattern similar to the chords that lead from the second to the third movements of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
XII Fossiles (Fossils)
Strings, two pianos, clarinet, and xylophone: Here, Saint-Saëns mimics his own composition, the Danse macabre, which makes heavy use of the xylophone to evoke the image of skeletons playing card games, the bones clacking together to the beat. The musical themes from Danse macabre are also quoted; the xylophone and the violin play much of the melody, alternating with the piano and clarinet. The piano part is especially difficult here - octaves that jump in quick thirds. Allusions to "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" (better known in the English-speaking world as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star), the French nursery rhymes "Au clair de la lune", and "J'ai du bon tabac" the piano plays the same melody upside down), the popular anthem Partant pour la Syrie, as well as the aria Una voce poco fa from Rossini's The Barber of Seville can also be heard. The musical joke in this movement is that the musical pieces quoted are the fossils of his time.
XIII Le cygne (The Swan)
Two pianos and cello: This is by far the most famous movement of the suite, often performed solo and is used to showcase the interpretive skills of the cellist. The lushly romantic cello solo (which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water) is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other (representing the swan's feet, hidden from view beneath the water, propelling it along).
Full ensemble: The finale opens on the same tremolo notes in the pianos as in the introduction, which are soon reinforced by the wind instruments, the glass harmonica and the xylophone. The strings build the tension with a few low notes, leading to glissandi by the piano, then a pause before the lively main melody is introduced. This movement is somewhat reminiscent of an American carnival from the middle of the 20th century, with one piano always maintaining a bouncy eighth note rhythm. Although the melody is relatively simple, the supporting harmonies are ornamented in the style that is typical of Saint-Saëns' compositions for piano; dazzling scales, glissandi and trills. Many of the previous movements are quoted here from the introduction, the lion, the asses, hens, and kangaroos. The work ends with a a series of six "Hee Haws" from the Jackasses, as if to say that the Jackass has the last laugh, before the final strong group of C major chords.
As the title suggests, the work follows a zoological program and progresses from the first movement, Introduction et marche royale du lion, through portraits of elephants and donkeys ("Those with Long Ears") to a finale reprising many of the earlier motifs.
Several of the movements are of humorous intent:
Ogden Nash verses
In 1949, Ogden Nash wrote a set of humorous verses to accompany each movement for a Columbia Masterworks recording of Carnival of the Animals conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. Recited on the original album by Noël Coward, they are now often included when the work is performed. The conclusion of the verse for the "Fossils", for example, fits perfectly with the punchline-like first bar of the music:
- At midnight in the museum hall
- The fossils gathered for a ball
- There were no drums or saxophones,
- But just the clatter of their bones,
- A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
- Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
- Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
- Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
- Amid the mastodontic wassail
- I caught the eye of one small fossil.
- "Cheer up, sad world," he said, and winked-
- "It's kind of fun to be extinct."
Throughout the long-running Carry On Films, The Elephant was used as the signature tune for the characters played by Hattie Jacques, when they first appeared on screen.
In 1976, Warner Brothers produced a television special directed by Chuck Jones featuring an abridged version of The Carnival of the Animals with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck playing the piano duo (it opens with Bugs and Daffy arguing over the pronunciation of the composer's name—Camille Saint-Saëns [Bugs] or Camel Saynt Saynes [Daffy]). The live-action orchestra is conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. "The Turtle", "The Mule", "The Cuckoo" and "The Swan" are omitted, a brief version of "The Pianists" is heard in the end credits, and the verse for "The Mule" is tacked onto the verse for "The Jackass".
Fittingly, both "Weird Al" Yankovic and Peter Schickele have recorded new versions of the Carnival of the Animals, both also as "b" sides of new versions of Peter and the Wolf. Yankovic's version, on his album Peter and the Wolf recorded in 1988, is titled "Carnival of the Animals, part II," and features new poems in the style of Ogden Nash written and read by Yankovic, and with new music in the style of Saint-Saëns composed and performed by Wendy Carlos. Schickele's version, recorded on Sneaky Pete and the Wolf in 1993, keeps the original Saint-Saëns' music, but has new poems written and read by Schickele.
"The Swan" is used in the 2005 film My Summer of Love by P. Pawlikowski. Tamsin performs it on her cello when Mona visits her house for the first time.
Australian/British classical crossover string quartet Bond remade a version of the Aquarium movement on their album Born, although Camille Saint-Saëns is uncredited .
- The theme from the "Royal March of the Lion" was used as the musical motif for the Dreyfus Fund commercials which aired on American television. This pairing of the music and the Dreyfus Lion was used for many years starting in the early 1950s.
Roland Petit's ballet Proust ou les intermittences du cœur uses the Ouverture to open both acts.