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.