Monthly Archives: June 2017

Where’s That Wolf? (Animals Part 3)




Composers’ talent for wit, parody and light-hearted fun seem to cause them shame rather than providing a reason for celebration. Such was the case for Saint Saens and his wonderful  Carnival of the Animals.  Arthur Sullivan (Gilbert’s partner) also wished to be a “serious” composer. He wrote a symphony that hardly anyone remembers whereas everyone who ever heard the tunes of the Mikado or HMS Pinafore cannot help singing or whistling them.

This was not true of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) who truly had fun with animals as a child. Prokofiev was a child prodigy and like Mozart started composing at the age of 5.

Peter and the Wolf was written for children in two weeks and was intended as a child’s introduction to the instruments of the orchestra. Each character is represented by a different instrument and has his own musical theme.

The narrator tells the story of Peter, a young pioneer (the equivalent of a boy scout), whose friends, a duck, a bird and a cat are threatened by a wolf from the woods.

Peter lives with his grandfather (represented by a bassoon) who has strictly forbidden him to go into the woods. The duck is announced by the oboe, the bird by a flute, the cat by a clarinet and the wolf with a chorus of menacing French horns.

There are also hunters (tympanic drums) whose aim is to shoot the wolf. Disobeying his grandfather, Peter climbs over a wall, captures the wolf and in a joyful parade takes it to the zoo.

There is  a moral to this tale: it promotes the virtues of resourcefulness  and risk taking. It is also joyful and encourages audience participation. Peter and the Wolf has been adapted for a puppet performance by the “Spitting Image Puppets” marvelously decorated and costumed , whimsical and hilarious.

And to end on a completely different note : Listen to Walking the Dog by George Gershwin, a joyous, careless saunter  by a two legged and a four legged  creature  happy in each other’s company.

Editor’s note: When I was five years old, the wolf music in this story scared the hell out of me.



Visitors from Birdland

White Crowned Sparrows

White Crowned Sparrows

On a recent mid-afternoon, I was sitting in the backyard reading, absorbing the quiet and admiring the white roses. Then two visitors appeared: two fat grey sparrows.  They headed straight for the little water fountain which my housekeeper had filled that morning.  I was holding my breath trying to become invisible but they paid me no attention whatsoever. One plunged in the water and the other perched on a high branch and pip-pip-pipped softly as if to reassure his companion that all was well. Then bird #1 started splashing merrily, spreading his wings, dipping his beak to drink, then thrashing some more. This went on for a while until they reversed roles. Bird #1 went   to take up his position as sentry while bird #2  went through the same ritual in the basin. I felt as if I was watching an episode from Nature in real time.  Quite a magic moment.


Baby Sparrows

Baby Sparrows

Music and Animals


In Aesop’s fables, animals are chosen to convey a moral lesson. Children love animals and are more likely to heed their unspoken advice than listen to human exhortations. The animals that appear in musical compositions are  the result of a nostalgic effort to recreate this magical childhood world.

It is in this spirit that Maurice Ravel created his “Ma Mere L’Oye Suite” (Mother Goose Suite). He also produced “L’Enfant et les  Sortileges” in which  a squirrel, two cats, a frog and a dragonfly scold a naughty child.   Francis Poulenc composed the music for “The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant”  for a narrator and a piano in 1945. Later it was rearranged for wind instruments.

In 1886 the French composer Camille Saint-Saens in a few short weeks wrote the music for “Le Carnaval des Animaux” (Carnival of the Animals), a grand and witty zoological  fantasy in 14 short movements. The orchestration is different for each movement. Some highlights are:

–Royal march and roar of the lion

–Hens and roosters cacophony ending in a harmony

–Hermiones (wild asses) rapid and virtuosic air

–Turtles dancing a funereal French Can-Can

–Long-eared donkeys braying

–Pianists mangling their Etudes (exercises)

–Skeletons performing well known children’s songs (they sound like a xylophone)

–And finally : “The Swan,”  for two pianos and a cello, the piece de resistance, a beautiful and melodic piece which is every cellist’s dream, nowadays often associated with Yo Yo Ma. For some reason Saint-Saens forbade the performance of this work until after his death, except for “The Swan” perhaps out of a feeling that the whole enterprise was somehow unworthy of him.

It was not until 1921 that this work was widely diffused.

And we are lucky to still have it.

Editors note: Enjoy Carnival of the Animals. This is a personal favorite.