The catalogue of Camille Saint-Saëns's works contains no fewer than 169 compositions with opus numbers plus numerous works without (13 operas, to say nothing of the rest). Relatively few of these can be heard today with any regularity: some of the concertos, the Third Symphony (“Organ”), and the opera Samson and Delilah – plus, probably more frequently than anything else, The Carnival of the Animals. According to Saint-Saëns's biographer, James Harding, “It would have caused him the bitterest annoyance had he known that this witty extravaganza was to become his most popular work.”
Yet, to tell the truth, Saint-Saëns is himself no less in The Carnival of the Animals than he is in his more serious efforts. According to Harding: “Behind the ultra-respectable pillar of the musical establishment there lurked a mischievous imp with a truly Parisian sense of humour and ridicule.”
The “mischievous imp” had cooked up a delicious bit of musical parody for a soirée given by the cellist Joseph Lebouc. In a series of sketches, purporting to portray various animals, he in fact poked fun at some well-known composers and performers from the Parisian music scene.
Saint-Saëns's “zoological fantasy” opens with an introduction that one commentator has described as “a sign board: 'This way to the zoo,' a medley of roars, brays, clucks and squawks.” It is immediately followed by the “Royal March of the Lion,” in which part of the fun comes from the use of the Dorian mode (an old church scale, supposed to be solemn and awe-inspiring) in a most irreverent context.
“Hens and Roosters” is a brief fantasy and quasi-fugue on the musical figure of “cock-a-doodle-doo.” The title of the next movement, “Hémiones,” refers to a species of wild donkey from the Central Asian steppes: represented by the two pianos, these “fleet animals” gallop at a breathtaking speed. The “Tortoises,” by contrast, drag themselves with an almost painful slowness, dancing the fast can-can from Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at about a quarter of its original tempo.
The melody of the next movement, “Elephants,” is played by the double basses (who else?). In another humorous travesty of a colleague's music, Saint-Saëns quotes, with supreme irony, the “Dance of the Sylphes” from Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, followed by a passing echo of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream.
The two pianos briefly take turns hopping up and down in “Kangaroos,” before we get to the first truly serious movement, “Aquarium.” The flute and the celesta, silent until now, play a beautiful lyrical tune along with the muted strings, accompanied by poetic arpeggios in the two pianos.
This “lyrical intermezzo” is abruptly followed by “Personages with Long Ears,” a rather naughty affair for first and second violins only. In “The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Forest,” mischievous humour is again set aside for a piece of genuine beauty. The short movement is made up of a series of peaceful, soft piano chords, with a solo clarinet (preferably offstage) interjecting the calls of the cuckoo.
“Voliére” (“Aviary”) is a virtuoso flute solo with a somewhat impressionistic flavour. It is followed by “Pianists,” possibly the nastiest joke of all. The score instructs the musicians to imitate the awkwardness of beginning piano players as they stumble their way through the C-major, D-flat major, D major and E-flat major scales (there would probably be more scales if the strings didn't suddenly stop them).
In “The Fossils,” Saint-Saëns quotes his own “Danse macabre,” in addition to some well-known French folksongs and, rather unexpectedly, Rosina's cavatina from Rossini's Barber of Seville. The “Danse macabre” tune, played by the xylophone, begins and ends the movement, and is also heard between episodes: in other words, it functions as a rondo theme.
“The Swan,” for solo cello, was the only movement Saint-Saëns allowed to be published during his lifetime. No wonder: this piece, which immediately became a staple of the cello literature, has nothing offensive in it, and its beautiful tune was too good to be wasted. It was obviously Saint-Saëns's homage to the evening's host, the cellist Lebouc.
After this sentimental episode, there is nothing left but to conclude the piece, and Saint-Saëns does so with a lively finale, in which some of the animals we have met come back to take their bows, including the wild donkeys, the hens and roosters, and the kangaroos, their respective themes linked together by a happy refrain melody.