Camille Saint-Saëns – Le carnaval des animaux

Analysis of the characteristics of “Programme Music” in the Carnival of the Animals in the single movements and sound descriptive elements.

The musical suite

Le carnaval des animaux ​is quoted to be a “humorous musical suite” by the french composer and piano-prodigy Camille Saint-Saëns, composed in 1886. The suite contains 14 parts, each representing an “animal” but the last, which is a finale. The term “animal” is a little flexible, as these animals include pianists, fossils, beings with long ears, and swift animals to name a few. The most famous part is by far “the Swan”, nr. 13

Programme Music

This suite would be best sorted into programme music of the romanticism period. The first clue can be found in its title, which already gives away the programme idea behind it. The piece only gains “sense” with it. As we discussed in class, programme music was a way to turn away from the metaphysical pure music of the romanticism and bring the music closer to the listener. That included new listeners, outside of the elite, when music was democratized with the national revolutions of the 19th century. We also know that composer of programme music prefer content over strict form. Also the parts differ in rhythm, speed, length, and key. The shortest part is comprised of barely more than 20 compasses.

The main concept behind the parts are to mimic or make allusions to animals. However apart from the title, there is no further programme, nor explanation. While, as we had spoken about, symphonic poems had an actual poem as background, and was given to the listener to set the mood. What serves as programme in Camille Saint-Saëns piece is actually musical context and “heritage”. He took in some parts inspiration and sounds of animals using other composers work. That way he establishes an image in each part that will remind the listener of the animal in question.

Inside the music

  1. Introduction et marche royal du lion
    The introduction is played by the string instruments and both pianos. At first, it bears little resemblance to the lion, and ends in the two pianos one rising and one descending into extremes. Perhaps this virtuoso effect, makes the actual march be more dominant. The rhythmic pattern one the one hand, and on the other he uses the Dorian mode in this part. The Dorian mode, curiously was used in Beethoven’s ​Missa Solemnis​, dedicated to Archduke Rudolf of Austria and first performed for Russian Prince Nikolai Galitzin. So there we can find the relation to royalty. Finally a trace of a Lion’s roar can be found in the music as well
  2. Poules et Coqs
    In the second part we will hear references to chickens and roosters, but not just their “call”, but also the noises of their actions. The first notes already mimic picking. We can connect this to chickens so precisely, because he based this part off of Rameau’s piece​ La poule. Played on the clavichord, we can see a similar movement in both.
  3. Hémiones (animaux véloces)
    This part is comprised of very fast-paced piano, giving the impression of running. Also, the movements of the melody go up and down, which gives a scenery to the running. Finally together with the name, we understand that this is about wild donkeys in Asian mountain areas.
  4. Tortues
    This slowed down, and even lumbering part describes the cautious walk of the tortoise. Far more than an animal noise, again, this describes the way they move, or at least the sensation we associate with them: slowness. Camille Saint-Saëns chose for this part to slow down a known piece – the Galop Infernal Can-Can by Offenbach. It is just played slow beyond recognition, but we recognize it in the score
  5. L’éléphant
    In the Elephant Camille Saint-Saëns begins with the piano playing a chord in each hand in coupled eighths, giving a very heavy and full sounds, fitting for an Elephant. The main melody is played by the Bass, lowest of the instruments adding to the impression of a large animal. The last touch is using the melody from Berlioz ​Danse des Sylphes ​, from his ​Damnation de Faust. ​This dance related to fairy, sprite-like beings, being played by the bass adds to the feeling of a heavier animal, which completes the image of an elephant.
  6. Kangourous
    This part seems less obvious. Again, Camille Saint-Saëns decides to interpret the movement of the animal, not the call or cry. The Kangaroos most iconic characteristic is the jump. And Saint-Saëns gives it a sound. One can also note that Camille Saint-Säens switches from a 4/4 time to a 3/4 time between the jump and the other music. Also the “jump melody” is marked with a accelerando and ritardando. He has found rhythmic elements to express movement and the tensing and untensing of the leg muscles.
  7. Aquarium
    The Aquarium – how can one describe the sound of fish and of water? Camille Saint-Saëns’ 7th part of the carnival of the animals could be considered “pre-impressionism”. Far more than describing the movement or “sound” of fish, he tries to emulate an under-water feeling. Maybe similar to Wagner’s R​heingold p​relude, the string section begins with steadier notes, held notes. But what stands out above all, is the use of a glass harmonica. The unearthly sounds help put us feel under the water.
  8. Personnages à longues oreilles
    Quite simply put, these ​personnage,​ these people are donkeys. And after the pre-impressionist piece may bring some calm into the storm with an obvious animal call sound. The donkey violins. This is the shortest part of all 14 in the Carnival and rumour has it, Saint-Saëns wrote it with his critics in mind, that were not pleased with the European Tour he was taking a break from, when writing the Carnival.
  9. Le Coucou au fond des bois
    The Cuckoo has one particularity – it is being played by the Clarinet. The same instrument that Beethoven used in his 6th symphony, “pastorale” for the same animal. If there were any doubts that this is piece is programme music, now there should be none. Here we find referenced the very symphony that gave way to the idea of programme music.
  10. Volière
    We stay in the winged realm of the birds. The flute describes the flutter of the wings in its fast-paced melody, that “flies” up and down the pentagram. Again, we find a description of movement – the birds are represented by Camille Saint-Saëns by their call and their movement.
  11. Pianistes
    Probably the most curious of all the animals are the pianists. This part was dedicated to the students Camille Saint-Saëns and their relentless practice of scales. His quick wink towards the human animal nature gives the entire suite a more comedic essence.
  12. Fossiles
    After going through a quick history of Romantic composers, Camille Saint-Saëns honors himself in this part. The fossils come directly from his own symphonic poem, ​La danse macabre.​ He uses the Xylophone to imitate the rattling of bones, in a small section that is later repeated by the piano and string section. However the use of a solo-clarinette in some sections gives a much more cheerful atmosphere than the original danse macabre.
  13. Le Cygne
    We arrive at the last part, the p​ iece de resistance​ of the Carnival, the Swan. After originally composing the suite in Austria in 1886, Saint-Saëns did not want to publish it, and only had it performed in private occasions. He feared his reputation as a serious composer would be damaged. However this piece for Cello and piano was published still during his lifetime, and remains the most famous of all the Carnival. The sweet melody embodies the form of a swans neck. The part may not be very obvious, very programmatic. However Camille Saint-Saëns manages to embody not just the form but the elegance we relate to swans. The steady piano swims along like the flow of a river.
  14. Final
    The final part gives a reprise to the animals in the previous parts, with small bits of melody we can recognize from before. It gives its conclusion to the Carnival in a last dance. And if that were not enough, it even begins similar to the ​Introduction.​

But is it programme music?

This question is founded on several factors. At first, and maybe just a formal issue, the suite is not based on any poem or other-art inspiration. For many the “extra-musical” was part of essence of a work of art, for example for Franz Brendel. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote it after a criticised tour around Europe, in Austria in the year 1886. And adding to that he did not want to publish it, because he feared it would tarnish his reputation as serious composer. For him it was just a humorous adventure he reprised for private events. He seems like an academic and trained composer who should be “in favour” of pure music, but has written a programme piece.

It is however based on, and in someway uses, musical references of the last decades to express the different animals. To me, the suite is more a “programme music for musicians”, in comparison to a real democratization of music. To be able to understand how the allusion to the animal is made, you have to recognize and be aware of different compositions of the ongoing century. The parts of the Elephant or the Tortoise are less understandable without this information. We might have the “intuition”, but the genius of the “musical program” becomes lost. Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a suite that has a clear description in its title, that has a narrative thread through it, but that has a programme based on other musical compositions one ought to know to be able to understand the ​Carnaval des Animaux. I​t is not perfectly clear nor perfectly democratised and has no extra-musical aid apart from its title. It is not 100% programme music.

The poem for the ​Carnaval des Animaux

All that being said, nowadays we will find a poem being given to us when we listen to the Carnival. The american poet Ogden Nash wrote poems to each part in 1949, which explain each animal – and has references to the sounds we hear. For the Lion he mentions the roar. The tortoise’ poem makes references to the lore of the Hare and the tortoise race. And the rattling of the bones (or xylophone) is explained in the twelfth part.

Maybe these verses prove to be a better approximation to the music for a general public, but Saint-Saëns already gave the clues to those who can recognize them. And so the poem ends quite fittingly with “​ St. Saëns has done a miraculous thingling.”

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