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Carnival of the Animals (2019)

About the Music

The Carnival of the Animals (1886)

Leonard Bernstein, in one of his Young People’s Concerts, explored the question, “What makes music funny?” He goes on to suggest, “The first and simplest way that music can be amusing is by simply imitating nature. It’s one of the oldest ways of making you laugh —by imitating things.” In fact, we have examples of music that contains imitations of nature going back to the medieval era, and if we look at a style of vocal music written in the 16th century called the madrigal, we see that they used a lot of what we would call “word painting,” or representing through music a thing, a character, or an action happening in a story (an example would be the pitches ascending when singing about going up a hill, and the pitches descending when singing about going down it). This extended to mimicking the characteristics and sounds of animals. One of the most famous writers of 16th-century madrigals, Jacques Arcadelt, wrote a beautiful work called The White and Gentle Swan (Il bianco e dolce cigno) in which the smoothness of the music reflects the swan gliding across the water. Another famous Renaissance composer, Josquin des Prez wrote a very entertaining madrigal called The Cricket (El Grillo) that shows some very quick and jolly skipping and jumping in the notes like the cricket rubbing its legs together and hopping around. One Baroque composer that Camille Saint-Saëns admired, Jean-Philippe Rameau, wrote some wonderful keyboard works illustrating bird songs, including one for the hen—perhaps where Saint-Saëns got the idea for his own hens. Many other examples of animal sounds are found in the music of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg, and Respighi, to name a few. How many others can you think of?

Saint-Saëns built his career by teaching at the Ecole Niedermeyer (Gabriel Fauré was one of his students), occasionally performing on organ, composing, and advocating for the upcoming generations of young French composers through the Société Nationale de Musique, an organization he co-founded in 1871. It was apparently during his days at the Ecole that he first came up with the idea for The Carnival of the Animals. However, it would take him a little over twenty years to get around to writing his “Grand Zoological Fantasy.” That happened in only a few days in 1886 while Saint-Saëns was supposed to be completing work on his Third Symphony (also known as the “Organ Symphony”). Composed for his elderly friend, the cellist Charles Lebouc, who hosted private concerts every Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday at the conclusion of Carnival, The Carnival of the Animals was performed at Lebouc’s the same year it was composed, with Saint-Saëns and Louis-Joseph Diémer (a 19th century pianist and harpsichordist who advocated for restoring interest in early music performance and instruments) performing the piano parts.

Wanting to avoid being known primarily as the composer of The Carnival of the Animals, Saint-Saëns decided to make sure the piece was not published during his lifetime. Performances were limited to a few private events (Franz Liszt, who once called Saint-Saëns the greatest organist in the world was at one of these rare performances). It wasn’t until his friends begged him to make at least some of it public that he allowed one movement to be used as a solo piece: “The Swan” (he also finally agreed the entire work could be published after his death).

Fourteen sections make up The Carnival of the Animals, and many of them are peppered with musical quotes from other pieces by Saint-Saëns, or by other composers. The “Introduction and Royal March of the Lion” kicks everything off with anticipatory tremolos and glissandos before announcing the arrival of the lion with a miniature fanfare of chords. How many times can you hear the lion roar? Next are the “Hens and Roosters” squawking and pecking as they come and go, and the frantic scales running up and down on both pianos depict “Wild Asses: Swift Animals.” In “Tortoises” we come to a clever use of Jacques Offenbach’s famous “can-can” from his operetta, Orpheus in the Underworld. Usually performed at a much quicker tempo, here it is adapted to an appropriate speed for their plodding movements. In “The Elephant” Saint-Saëns continues his jokes with more topsy-turvy quotes of other pieces. The light and shimmering music of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo (which translates to “joke”) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Berlioz’s delicate Dance of the Sylphs (from The Damnation of Faust) is transformed into a waltz for a lumbering double bass solo. “Kangaroos” jump and bounce around, skipping from one piano to another, resting occasionally. Rippling waters fill the “Aquarium,” disturbed only by the movement of the fish, swimming gently to and fro. “Personages with Long Ears,” the mules hee-haw back and forth at each other from between the two violin sections, and “The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods” calls to us from the clarinet before an entire “Aviary” flutters from the flute. You may not immediately think of “Pianists” when you think of animals, but here they are taking their places in the parade. Brian Rees, in his biography of Saint- Saëns, suggest the pianists “practicing Czerny-like exercises” remind “the listeners that, for a composer, piano players in the neighboring apartment are troublesome beasts.” “Fossils” are represented both by songs about death, and by old “fossils” of music: Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and the French folk songs Au clair de la lune (a tune we know as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) and Ah! vous dirai-je, maman. “The Swan” glides elegantly along in what became one of the most famous solo cellos pieces of all time. At the first performance of The Carnival of the Animals, Charles Lebouc (the cellist and host) played the solo, and the beauty of the elderly musician’s performance, as well as the symbolism of the “swan song,” touched many hearts there. Finally comes the “Finale” where we hear the entire menagerie rush forward to take their bows.

Are there any other animals that you would have added? Rees tells a funny story about Saint-Saëns’s contemporary Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, a pianist, composer, and teacher at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire (Debussy was his student), who thought the cat should have also been represented. He felt so strongly about this that he planned to compose his own “sequel” to The Carnival of the Animals, but abandoned the project when he didn’t find sufficient real-life examples of the kinds of calls from street cats he wanted to use as models for his sounds (he was very persnickety, apparently).

The version of The Carnival of the Animals you will hear today includes verses by the American poet Ogden Nash that were originally written for an album produced in 1949 with Andre Kostelanetz conducting and Noël Coward narrating. Designer and Director Lake Simons, a theater artist based in New York City, has dreamt up whimsical puppets created from everyday objects and other materials to make the visual and physical images of the animals come to life.

—Program Note by Kathryn J. Allwine Bacasmot

About the Production

This production of Carnival of the Animals takes its inspiration from Victorian toy theatres. Popular in the early 19th century, these miniature stages—often around two feet wide, 18 inches deep, and a foot tall—allowed children and adults alike to reenact popular stage plays in their own homes.

Popular plays were sold as kits containing scenic backdrops, key characters, and costumes printed onto paper that were then cut out and glued onto cardboard or thin pieces of wood. These sheets could be purchased in full color or in black and white for children to color themselves. A script with full stage directions was often included or available for purchase so the play could be performed by the small paper cutouts.

The scenery, characters, and stages were often incredibly elaborate in decoration, but simple in design. The ornate Victorian aesthetic often found in full-sized theatre was not compromised or diminished for the toy theatre; it was simply scaled down. Lake Simons, designer and director of this production of Carnival of the Animals, says the idea of Victorian toy theatre “goes hand-in-hand with the playful yet elegant presentation of the music and the poetry.”

“Even though the toy theatres are elaborate,” says Simons, “there is a simplicity that they evoke: the grand and tiny in one.” Carnival of the Animals embodies the spirit of both the grand and tiny; the elaborate and the simple. The ten-piece orchestra and the two-dozen puppets bring the music alive, but more importantly they spark the imagination.

—Note by Jen Gushue