The Background

The Carnival of the Animals was written in 1886 by Camille Saint-Saëns. It was performed in its entirety only twice in his lifetime: once in public at a Mardi Gras celebtration of La Trompette, the cultural society it was written for, and once in private for Saint-Saëns' close friend, Franz Liszt. Saint-Saëns allowed only one movement, The Swan, to be published while he was alive. He didn't want the nature of the remainder of the suite to interfere with his reputation as a serious musician.

He was right.

You may have heard of the Carnival of the Animals. Perhaps the Danse Macabre. How about his Symphony no. 1 in E flat? No? Too bad. It is the stuff of hopes and dreams. Symphony no. 3, the Organ Symphony? No? What a shame. Then, surely, the opera Samson and Delila? Oh. You should. Lovely arias. It's really a shame that more of Saint-Saëns' work is not more widely known and listened to. Don't get me wrong, though. The Carnival of the Animals is a lovely suite, full of tongue in cheek passages and musical jokes. Its only fault is that in the public eye, it overshadows its composer's more serious work.

Maybe Saint-Saëns knew how popular the Carnival of the Animals would be. His will stated "I expressly forbid the publication of any unpublished work, except Le Carnival des Animaux, which may be issued by my usual publishers." Saint-Saëns also bequeathed a full orchestral score, and the piece was publicly premiered two months after his death. It is, perhaps, his most widely performed work.

The Elephant is a transcription of Berlioz' Ballet of the Sylphs (into a much, much lower octave), and The Turtle is definitely a slow-motion version of Offenbach's Can-Can. Fossils is full of such musical quotes, including pieces from several French folk songs (such as Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman, or Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star), a theme from Saint-Saens' Danse macabre, and a section of Rosina's aria in Rossini's Barber of Seville. The Pianists is a parody of Schumann's Toccata in C Major, Opus, 7*. These jokes and borrowed themes combine with amusingly accurate musical portrayals of animals to create something infinitely fun to listen to.

It's damn good music, too.

My favourite version of the Carnival of the Animals was conducted by Yoel Levi, and played by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It combines with a new poem by Bruce Adolphe, read by Itzhak Perlman, and the result is an absolute jewel. The recording is part of the album "Classical Zoo", which also includes excellent animal-themed music by Resphigi, Sibelius, and Rossini.

Usually it would be played with two pianos and a small orchestra of flute, piccolo, clarinet, xylophone, glass harmonica, and strings. Today, we'll do it with words!

The Piece and The Poem

1. Introduction and Royal March of the Lions (Introduction et marche royale du lion)

Trill! Trill! Crescendo... bass line. Repetetive melody, building. Faster, faster... here it comes... GLISSANDO! Chord!

The Lion, with his magnificent mane
Is more worthy than Tarzan of winning Jane.
He lazes about; he's a terrible bore
Except for his rrrrrrrrather rrrrrremarkable rrrrrroar!

Piano fanfare! Strings, regally marching! Piano accents! Bass! Xylophone! Up the keyboard, down the keyboard! ROOAAR! No rush -- this is stately stuff! It announces an approaching dignitary! Unison chords! Up, down! Now the piano dances lightly, and it is the strings going up! down! See the proud monarch step aside to display his frolicking princes and princesses. Court music! Flourish!

2. Hens and Cocks (Poules et coqs)

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, say the strings. Peck peck peck peck! Swish, swish. Hurry, hurry. The piano's upper register tiptoes in, cautiously! Strings fall back, then join in. They swoop dooooooown, then uuuuuuuuuup to meet the clarinet. Da, daa daa da daaaa daaaaa da. Strings, hurry! Hurry, swish, swish! Again! HurryhurryhurryhurryPIANO CHORD!

3. Wild Asses Hémiones (Animaux véloces))

Scalingveryquicklyupthekeyboardtothetopandbackdown. And again! Up and down in the middle. To the top, down! Updownupdown. Faster, faster, faster, stop! Chord chord.

4. Tortoises (Tortues)

The turtle moves at a sluggish pace
Carrying himself inside a case
From which stick out feet, tail, and face
And yet he always wins the race.

Can-can-can you do the can-can-can you do the can-can-can you do the can-can in slow motion slowly!
Can-can-can you do the can-can-can you do the can-can-can you do the can-can with a flourish oh you tripped I guess not...
Now slow. Sloooower. Sloooooowest.

5. The Elephant (L'éléphant)

Da da da, da da! Glorious chording harmony! In stately, climbing fashion. Now the double bass creeps in below. It frolics, it dances, it spins. A light touch, but a heavy sound! The piano hovers above as around, around, around it goes.... Then the bass becomes lyrical, smooth like crushed velvet, and the chord chord chord diminuendos... only to ascend to build and hit the TOP! And arpeggio, arpeggio down! Chord chord chord! The piano suddenly leaves its light touch behind! This is chord chord chord! The double bass runs up and down staircases like a ballerina before the show. And then the piano da da da DA DA! in closing.

6. Kangaroo (Kangourous)

The piano is a kangaroo! Hop hop hop hop HOP hop hop hop! -- but then relax. Stay cool! Harmonise gently. Until -- again -- hop hop hop HOP hop hop hop! Before calming, lying back, resting on the tail in a slow chord... hop hop hop hop hop HOP hop hop hop HOP hop hop hop! Tenatively hop hop... stop... gradual triads to a... silence

7. The Aquarium (Aquarium)

Tuna fish swim in the deep blue ocean
They never swim in a lake.
But tuna fish haven't the slightest notion
That people like to eat tuna steak.

If any fish knows what music's about
(Which is something that I sincerely doubt)
It's probably only the rainbow trout

But no fish I know from shrimp to whales
Ever had to practice scales.
And that's because they're born with those;
But they never quite learn their arpeggios.

The xylophone and piano are waving in the background like seaweed. Glittering underwater up and down the keyboard... it winks at the top and descends again, never pausing... and over it the flute fish, swimming back and forth against the glass. Laaaaa, laaaa, laaaa laaaaaa... again, back to the other side... and up to the surface, to flutter across it. And then, the xylophone descends gracefully to the bottom of the aquarium, floating back and forth. When it gets there it pauses before returning to its star role: seaweed as the flute returns to swim again, back and forth, laaaaa, laaaa, laaaa laaaaaa... up, and down, to the side, floating finning swimming xylophone down to the bottom of the tank again! Fish returning same as ever back and forth delicately. Chord... up to the surface and down again to chord. Up, up, up, up down! Up down! Up down down down down down down down back and forth and back and forth and stop arpeggio to the top!

8. The Mules (Personages with Long Ears) (Personnages à longues oreilles)

SWOOSH! the strings. SWOOSH decline SWOOSH decline SWOOSH decline! Faster! SWOOSH SWOOSH SWOOSH! Follow each with diminuendo descent! And one last time, descending further than before, all the way down to nothing...

9. The Cuckoo (Le coucou au fond des bois)

The cuckoo is a nutty bird
That everybody mocks
Since they only know a single word
And like to live in clocks.

Gracefully chording ascent... clarinet cuckoo. La la la la... cuckoo. Up, up, up up down up da da da... cuckoo. Furthur, higher, more... cuckoo. Again... cuckoo. Nearly stately gently breezing up in chords and down up a lovely melody... cuckoo. Higher! Climb! ...cuckoo. One, two, three, four of one note... cuckoo. Downward line... cuckoo cuckoo. Down down down down... cuckoo. More forcefully down... cuckoo. Louder! and draw back, climb up... louder! cuckoo. Soft again, up and up and... cuckoo. Up and up and up cuckoo up cuckoo up cuckoo up cuckoo...

10. The Birds (Volières)

Fluttering strings! Then, fluttering piccolo! Flying hectically spinning around the sky on wings of sheer light! Twitter, twitter, flutter, flutter. Da, da, da, da, da up da up! Scales on the piano, the same fluttering whirling flight! Two tone whistle whistle whistles the piccolo as the piano helter-skelters. Trill the piano, fly the piccolo! Chirp the piano, soar the piccolo! Chord chord chord a delicate birdcall as it soars higher and higher and higher until there's nowhere else to go!

11. The Pianists (Pianistes)

Let's take a break from this musical zoo
And focus on a musician or two.
Pianists must practice six hours a day
In order to earn their exorbitant pay.


Now violinists and cellists must practice, too,
And flutists must also rehearse.
But pianists say "you only play one line, not two!
And what I must learn is incomparably worse."

So pianists sit hunched over ivory keys
For many hours alone,
With aching shoulders, elbows, and knees
Why don't they just play the trombone?

Chord chord up down up down same two over and over removing mistakes. C scale! One octave, again, again... two octaves! DA., the orchestra! Back to the start! Up down up down C scales! DA! Faster, this time! Again! DA! Even faster! Run up and down the scale! DA! Now slow. Up down up down chord chord STRINGS come in sawoop sawoop sawoop! over the up down chording until DA DA da...

12. Fossils (Fossiles)

Fossils are rocks with imprints of bones
Or other historically interesting stones.
They are found in the earth; that's known as geology;
When they dig up your yard they will make no apology.

String swoop! Xylophone. Clatter clatter da da da da da like old bones. Repeated by the piano, responded to by xylophone. Again! And now the piano trips and skips for a moment and the strings scatter hurriedly in before twinkle twinkle little star... variations! Folk tunes! Xylophones clattering, the sequence from the beginning. Again the piano responds and communicates back and forth before launching the clarinet into another cheery tune. Da da da dadadada da da da dadadada da da da DA da da down the scale until the xylophone takes over again and concludes!

13. The Swan (Le Cygne)

Here the piano takes a background position da da da da up down up down softly repetetive flourish up down up down again again falling into background but continuing. Over and above soars the cello! Laaaa, laaaaaaaa, laaaaaaaaa la laaaa laaaaa up, uuuuup up up! Daaaaaa, da da da da da da long, gracious tones to the top and most beautiful long note. Smoothly gliding up and down and soaring over top the caressing piano backdrop. Similar tunes completely different by subtle tonal quiet quality. Smoooooooth, siiiiiiiilky sounds. Da da daaaaaaaaaaa da! gradually down and up again... to repeat the same melody delicately in a higher measure. Growing more forceful, the piano more pronounced, louder, louder but still graceful. And then diminuendo, piano draws back. Loooong cello note, piano flourish. Back and forth and back and forth and... da daaaaa daaaaaaaaaa! The piano flutters softly downward like a feather falling in the wind...

14. Finale (Finale)

The piano enters with a TRILL! the xylophone joins it and then flourish up, flourish up into a lovely melodic frolic! Daaa da da dadadada! Running across the keys! Da! Da! Da! Da! crescendo, flourish! Start from the bottom, working up and down and up and down as the strings slide back and forth like marching footsteps faster faster faster! Back to the frolic! Dance! The whole orchestra joins in! Be merry! Piccolo trill, da da da daaa! Da da da! Da da da! Like a fanfare! Swoosh up down around the keyboard followed by the whole orchestra until dadadadadadada DA DA!

The Finale

This kind of description doesn't come near to doing the piece justice. I cannot be an orchestra, nor can I express the hilarious accents and rhythms that ornament Itzhak Perlman's reading of the accompanying poem in its complete form. The Carnival of the Animals is something everyone should hear for themselves, at least once.

CST Approved


Excerpts** from "Carnival of the Animals" by Bruce Adolphe
Liner notes from "Classical Zoo with Itzhak Perlman, narrator" published by Telarc. 100% worth your while pick up a copy!

*Thanks to Gorgonzola for pointing out the Schumann parody.

**Quoted poetry is indicated by blockquote. I've included my favourite (the most amusing!) verses of the poem. Where I've clipped sections or lines from the middle of a verse, it's indicated with "...". Snips at the beginnings or ends of verses are not indicated, nor are verses that are entirely missing. (There is a verse for each movement.)