Friday, April 30, 2010

Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals

As I prepared for our Spring Break Adventure, I couldn't help but think of those twenty-some hours in the car that would be perfect listening!  Knowing that my idea might not be received with equal amounts of enthusiasm, I tried to think of something fun - something that would let the kids close their eyes for a moment and use their imagination.  So in between videos of Night at the Museum:  The Smithsonian and High School Musical 3, I slipped in The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux) by the French Romantic composer, Saint-Saens.

Camille Saint-Saens
1835 - 1921

Saint-Saens was a serious French composer.  As I imagined him, I thought of my grandfather who looked old to me for the entire 33 years that I knew him.  As we listened to the piece, and the analysis of it by Leonard Bernstein,  it became clear that, just like my grandfather, the very serious Saint-Saens had an intelligent sense of humor!  

The Carnival of the Animals was composed in February 1886 while Saint-Saens was vacationing in a small Austrian village.  Saint-Saens was apparently concerned that the piece was too frivolous and might harm his reputation as a serious composer.  He suppressed performances of it and only allowed one movement, The Swan, to be published in his lifetime.  Only small, private performances were given for close friends like Franz Liszt.  He did, however, include a provision which allowed the suite to be published after his death and it has since become one of his most popular works.

The Carnival of the Animals is a musical suite with fourteen movements:
  1. Introduction and Royal March of the Lion - a stately March with strings and two pianos.
  2. Hens and Roosters - Strings, two pianos and clarinet.  The movement is centered around a pecking theme reminiscent of chickens pecking at grain.
  3. Wild Asses - Two pianos running feverishly with up and down scales and octaves.
  4. Tortoises - Strings and piano.  A satirical movement in which Saint-Saens slows down Offenbach's fast-paced "Can-Can" to a crawl.
  5. The Elephant - Double-bass and piano:  Another musical joke - The piano plays a waltz-like triplet while the bass trudges through themes taken from Mendelssohn's Incidental Musical to a Midsummer Night's Dream and Berlioz's Dance of the Sylphs.  These themes were originally intended for lighter-toned instruments.  The Joke is that Saint-Saens moves this to the lowest and heaviest-sounding instrument in the orchestra - the double bass.
  6. Kangaroos - Two pianos with plenty of hopping.
  7. Aquarium - Strings, two pianos, flute and glass harmonica (or glockenspiel).  This movement was my personal favorite.  The beautiful glissandos reminded me of the peaceful, mysterious, dimly lit viewing room at the Georgia Aquarium.  Listen closely and you can hear the fish splashing!
  8. Persons with Long Ears - Two violins Hee-Haw.  Was this based on an animal, or some people that he knew? (Some music critics, perhaps?)
  9. The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods - Two pianos and clarinet.  The pianos play large, soft chords while the clarinet "cuckoos" offstage.
  10. Aviary - Strings, piano and flute.  Can you guess which instrument is the bird?  You're right, the flute!
  11. Pianists - Strings and two pianos.  Not really an animal, per se, but sometimes my little pianists practicing their scales can act like animals!
  12. Fossils - Strings, two pianos, clarinet and xylophone.  Saint-Saens plays a double musical joke.  First, he mimics his own composition, the Danse Macabre, and uses the xylophone to sound like old bones.  Next he alludes to old french folk tunes.  The musical pieces themselves are fossils of his time!
  13. The Swan - Two pianos and cello.  By far the most famous music of the suite.  The romantic cello solo, which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water, is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other.
  14. Finale - Full Ensemble:  We hear quotes from many of the earlier movement with a strong finale.
Kid Critique:

Samuel:  I liked the Royal March of the Lion best.  It had power.
Anna:  I like The Swan because it sounded graceful.
Arielle:  I liked the Royal March of the Lion because it sounded like the lion was king of the jungle and it really sounded like a lion!
Ella:  I liked the elephant farting sounds! (Influenced by males in the car.)   I also like the Grand Finale - it sounded like all the animals were getting along together.

1 comment:

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