Song Number 41 in our big countdown of Classical Music is called The Swan. It is from The Carnival of the Animals by French Composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921).
According to galaxymusicnotes.com, Camille Saint-Saëns was widely heralded as a teen prodigy, as he started exhibiting perfect pitch at the age of two. He was also considered to be unparalleled on the organ and had very few competitors who matched his skills on the piano. He performed his first public concert when he was only 5 years old, accompanying a Beethoven sonata on the piano. His style can be best depicted as subtle, exuding a restrained yet cool essence. One of the world’s best pianists at that time, he was one of the first to actually create recordings of his works.
“The Carnival of Animals,” also known as “Le Carnaval des Animaux,” is one of his most famous works along with his Third Symphony, various piano and cello concertos, his opera “Samson et Dalila,” and his tone poem “Danse macabre.”
Saint-Saëns composed “The Carnival of the Animals” in 1886, while he was enjoying some leisure time in a small Austrian village. However, he was skeptical that it might hamper his public image of being more matured and serious composer, as he feared it was a tad bit whimsical. He took his reputation extremely seriously, and he was sure that the piece would make the listeners laugh, as it was stuffed with musical jokes. So, he prohibited all public performances of the piece until after his demise, except one movement known as “The Swan.”
It was first premiered on the 26th of February 1922, almost 30 years after its creation. The piece consists of 14 movements forming a suite, and utilizes two pianos, a xylophone, strings, glass harmonica, clarinet, and flute. The composer offers an amusing portrait of various animals by utilizing various instruments – either singularly or via combinations.
Introduction and Royal March of the Lion
The introduction starts with a bold tremolo theme via the piano, playing a pair of opposite scales and subsequently introducing a “march theme” that prevails through it. The pianos occasionally offer low runs of octaves, resembling the roar of a lion. The movement concludes with a “fortissimo note” that includes a combination of all the instruments utilized in the movement.
Hens and Roosters
The entire movement has a centralized theme played through strings and pianos, which resembles “chicken pecking at grains.” The piano offers a vast theme based on the crowing of a rooster.
Wild Donkeys Swift Animals
The animals depicted in this movement are running at great speed, which is induced by a feverish and fast up-and-down motion of the pianos.
The fourth movement is satirical and opens with a piano playing at a higher register, as the strings offer a slow rendition of the famed “Galop infernal.”
This section is marked with a perfect caricature of an elephant, as the piano offers a triplet figure resembling the waltz.
It constitutes a pattern of “hooping clouds” which is preceded by grace notes. The chords get louder and faster while ascending and subsequently becomes soft and slow while descending.
This movement is hugely musically rich, utilizing a glass harmonica, flute, two pianos, cello string quartet, and violins. The first piano opens with a descending ostinato, accompanied with the occasional glass harmonica at the end.
Characters with Long Ears
The shortest movement, it has two violins alternately playing both low, buzzing notes and high, loud ones – resembling a donkey’s braying.
The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods
It comprises of a clarinet and two pianos. The clarinet plays a single ostinato as the pianos craft soft and massive chords.
This movement comprises of a flute, pianos, and strings, offering a background score reminiscent of the buzz in a jungle. The flute plays the role of the birds, as the movement ends with a quiet tone.
This piano offers a glimpse of a unique movement comprising of two pianos and strings. The transitions between the keys are marked with a blasting chord from all the instruments utilized.
This movement utilizes a xylophone, clarinet, two pianos, and strings. The composer mimics his own works here, evoking images of skeletons taking part in card games. The violin and the xylophone play a prominent role, alternating with the clarinet and the piano.
It offers a slow-moving melody through a cello, which is played over the rippling sixteenths through one piano and rolled chords through another. It resembles the swan’s feet which are hidden beneath the water.
The movement opens with the similar tremolo notes from the introduction, and are subsequently reinforced by the xylophone, glass harmonica and wind movements. The strings slowly build up the tension as the lively main melody gets introduced. The movement concludes with a series of 6 braying from the donkeys, portraying that the animal enjoys the last laugh, and is followed by a final group of C major chords.
A Carnival of Music
Saint-Saëns originally crafted his ‘Grand Zoological Fantasy’ keeping a small group of instruments in mind – one each of clarinet, piccolo, flute, double bass, cello, and viola, and two violins. He also included a few surprise elements – a glass harmonica, two pianos, and xylophone. However, recent performance utilizes a full orchestra, introducing more colors to his brilliant characterizations.
The sounds of the instruments are exploited to perfection, painting the picture of the animals efficiently. The xylophone resembling the clattering of fossil bones, the double bass posing as an elephant. It’s the shape of music that swoons everyone to their feet – the trilling birds, the swans gliding with an elegant swagger, the hopping kangaroos etc. The composer also slips in the occasional musical pun to underline his point, for example, the tortoise slowly trundles off to Offenbach’s famous “can-can.”
The composition was finally free of his shackles when Saint-Saëns passed away in 1935. The Carnival of Animals has, after all these years, become a classic in its own rights, portraying the composer’s subtle skills as he paints his very own musical carnival.
Check out this recording from 1914: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MA1ffxiCOU8
(Now I understand what that Swan film was all about.)