An elephant in the room

“The Carnival of the Animals” is a suite by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns for which Ogden Nash once provided poems.

Written for private performance by an ensemble of two pianos and other instruments, Le carnival des animaux was first given at a private concert on Shrove Tuesday, 9 March 1886. It was followed by a public performance where some 200 people had to stand. And then the pianist Franz Liszt heard about it and requested his own private performance.

One month earlier Saint-Saëns had written to his publishers that while he should have been working on his Third Symphony, Carnival was more fun. There are 14 movements:

I Introduction and Royal March of the Lion.

II Hens and Roosters is based on a less elegant version of the theme of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s harpsichord piece “The Hen”.

III Wild Asses depicts them careening up-and-down the keyboards of both pianos.

IV Tortoises quotes the well-known “Galop” from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld but at an ultra-slow pace.

V The Elephant dances to a tune from Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust played as a ponderous double bass solo.

VI Kangaroos are illustrated by a pattern of “hopping” intervals of a fifth.

VII Aquarium is impressionistic and uses the celeste (at that time new to the orchestral repertoire).

VIII Characters with Long Ears (or jackasses) is directed at music critics, for obvious reasons.

IX The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods is a clarinet.

X Aviary includes a flute taking the part of a bird.

XI Pianists lampoons students practicing scales (badly).

XII Fossils includes real skeletons (Saint-Saëns’ own “Danse macabre”) and musical relics (three French nursery rhymes) as well as Rossini’s aria, “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville.

XIII The Swan is a cello solo gliding over a rippling accompaniment. (In 1905 a short ballet, The Dying Swan, was choreographed to this movement by Mikhail Fokine and performed by Anna Pavlova.)

XIV Finale: Earlier themes are quoted before the work ends rumbustiously after a series of “Hee Haws” by the Characters with Long Ears.

In 1949, the American poet Ogden Nash wrote a set of humorous verses to accompany “The Carnival of the Animals” for a Columbia Masterworks recording. On the original album they were recited by Noël Coward. As usual, Nash looked at things slightly askew:

“Elephants are useful friends,
Equipped with handles at both ends,
They have a wrinkled moth-proof hide,
Their teeth are upside down, outside.
If you think the elephant preposterous,
You’ve probably never seen a rhinosterous.”


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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