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The Carnival of the Animals

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The composer as a middle aged man with neat beard
Saint-Saëns circa 1880

The Carnival of the Animals (French: Le Carnaval des animaux) is a humorous musical suite of 14 movements, including "The Swan", by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. About 25 minutes in duration, it was written for private performance by two pianos and chamber ensemble; Saint-Saëns prohibited public performance of the work during his lifetime, feeling that its frivolity would damage his standing as a serious composer. The suite was published in 1922, the year after his death. A public performance in the same year was greeted with enthusiasm, and it has remained among his most popular. It is less frequently performed with a full orchestral complement of strings.


Following a disastrous concert tour of Germany in 1885–86, Saint-Saëns withdrew to a small Austrian village, where he composed The Carnival of the Animals in February 1886.[1] From the beginning he regarded the work as a piece of fun. On 9 February 1886 he wrote to his publishers Durand in Paris that he was composing a work for the coming Shrove Tuesday, and confessing that he knew he should be working on his Third Symphony, but that this work was "such fun" ("... mais c'est si amusant!"). He had apparently intended to write the work for his students at the École Niedermeyer de Paris,[2] but it was first performed at a private concert given by the cellist Charles Lebouc on 3 March 1886:

Monsieur Lebouc managed to assemble a definitive line-up of eminent performers: Messieurs Saint-Saëns, Diémer, Taffanel, Turban [fr], Maurin, Prioré, de Bailly and Tourcy who, after a very interesting program, took part in the first performance of a very witty fantasy burlesque, composed for this concert by Saint-Saëns and entitled the Carnival of the Animals. This zoological fantasy was received with great enthusiasm.[3]

A few days later, a second performance was given at Émile Lemoine's chamber music society La Trompette, followed by another at the home of Pauline Viardot with an audience including Franz Liszt, a friend of the composer, who had expressed a wish to hear the work. There were other performances, typically for the French mid-Lent festival of Mi-Carême. All those performances were semi-private, except for one at the Société des instruments à vent in April 1892, and "often took place with the musicians wearing masks of the heads of the various animals they represented".[3] Saint-Saëns was adamant that the work would not be published in his lifetime, seeing it as detracting from his "serious" composer image. He relented only for the famous cello solo The Swan, which forms the penultimate movement of the work, and which was published in 1887 in an arrangement by the composer for cello and solo piano (the original uses two pianos).

Saint-Saëns specified in his will that the work should be published posthumously. Following his death in December 1921 it was published by Durand in Paris in April 1922; the first public performance was given on 25 February 1922 by the Concerts Colonne, conducted by Gabriel Pierné.[4] It was rapturously received. Le Figaro reported:

We cannot describe the cries of admiring joy let loose by an enthusiastic public. In the immense oeuvre of Camille Saint-Saëns, The Carnival of the Animals is certainly one of his magnificent masterpieces. From the first note to the last it is an uninterrupted outpouring of a spirit of the highest and noblest comedy. In every bar, at every point, there are unexpected and irresistible finds. Themes, whimsical ideas, instrumentation compete with buffoonery, grace and science. ... When he likes to joke, the master never forgets that he is the master.[5]

The Carnival of the Animals has since become one of Saint-Saëns's best-known works, played in the original version for eleven instruments, or more often with the full string section of an orchestra. Frequently a glockenspiel substitutes for the rare glass harmonica.[6][7]


The suite is scored for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute (and piccolo), clarinet (C and B), glass harmonica, and xylophone.[8] There are fourteen movements, each representing a different animal or animals:

I. Introduction et marche royale du lion (Introduction and Royal March of the Lion)[edit]

Strings and two pianos: the introduction begins with the pianos playing a bold tremolo, under which the strings enter with a stately theme. The pianos play a pair of glissandos going in opposite directions to conclude the first part of the movement. The pianos then introduce a march theme that they carry through most of the rest of the introduction. The strings provide the melody, with the pianos occasionally taking low chromatic scales in octaves which suggest the roar of a lion, or high ostinatos. The two groups of instruments switch places, with the pianos playing a higher, softer version of the melody. The movement ends with a fortissimo note from all the instruments used in this movement.

II. Poules et coqs (Hens and Roosters)[edit]

Violins, viola, two pianos and clarinet: this movement is centered around a "pecking" theme played by the pianos and strings, reminiscent of chickens pecking at grain. The clarinet plays a small solo above the strings; the piano plays a very fast theme based on the rooster's crowing cry.

III. Hémiones (animaux véloces) (Wild Asses (Swift Animals))[edit]

Two pianos: the animals depicted here are quite obviously running, an image induced by the constant, feverishly fast up-and-down motion of both pianos playing figures in octaves. These are dziggetai, donkeys that come from Tibet and are known for their great speed.

IV. Tortues (Tortoises)[edit]

Strings and piano: a satirical movement which opens with a piano playing a pulsing triplet figure in the higher register. The strings play a slow rendition of the famous "Galop infernal" (commonly called the Can-can) from Offenbach's comic opera Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).

V. L'Éléphant (The Elephant)[edit]

Double bass and piano: this section is marked Allegro pomposo, the great caricature for an elephant. The piano plays a waltz-like triplet figure while the bass hums the melody beneath it. Like "Tortues", this is also a musical joke—the thematic material is taken from the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Berlioz's "Dance of the Sylphs" from The Damnation of Faust. The two themes were both originally written for high, lighter-toned instruments (flute and various other woodwinds, and violin, accordingly); the joke is that Saint-Saëns moves this to the lowest and heaviest-sounding instrument in the orchestra, the double bass.

VI. Kangourous (Kangaroos)[edit]

Two pianos: the main figure here is a pattern of "hopping" chords (made up of triads in various positions) preceded by grace notes in the right hand. When the chords ascend, they quickly get faster and louder, and when the chords descend, they quickly get slower and softer.

VII. Aquarium[edit]

Part of the original manuscript score of "Aquarium". The top staff was written for the (glass) "Harmonica". Play

Violins, viola, cello (string quartet), two pianos, flute, and glass harmonica. The melody is played by the flute, backed by the strings, and glass harmonica on top of tumultuous, glissando-like runs and arpeggios in pianos. These figures, plus the occasional glissando from the glass harmonica towards the end—often played on celesta or glockenspiel—are evocative of a peaceful, dimly lit aquarium.

VIII. Personnages à longues oreilles (Characters with Long Ears)[edit]

Two violins: this is the shortest of all the movements. The violins alternate playing high, loud notes and low, buzzing ones (in the manner of a donkey's braying "hee-haw"). Music critics have speculated that the movement is meant to compare music critics to braying donkeys.[9]

IX. Le Coucou au fond des bois (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods)[edit]

Two pianos and clarinet: the pianos play large, soft chords while the clarinet plays a single two-note ostinato; a C and an A, mimicking the call of a cuckoo bird. Saint-Saëns states in the original score that the clarinetist should be offstage.

X. Volière (Aviary)[edit]

Strings, pianos and flute: the high strings take on a background role, providing a buzz in the background that is reminiscent of the background noise of a jungle. The cellos and basses play a pickup cadence to lead into most of the measures. The flute takes the part of the bird, with a trilling tune that spans much of its range. The pianos provide occasional pings and trills of other birds in the background. The movement ends very quietly after a long ascending chromatic scale from the flute.

XI. Pianistes (Pianists)[edit]

Strings and two pianos: this humorous movement (satirizing pianists as animals) is a glimpse of what few audiences ever get to see: the pianists practicing their finger exercises and scales. The scales of C, D, D and E are covered. Each one starts with a trill on the first and second note, then proceeds in scales with a few changes in the rhythm. Transitions between keys are accomplished with a blasting chord from all the instruments between scales. In some performances, the later, more difficult, scales are deliberately played increasingly out of time. The original edition has a note by the editors instructing the players to imitate beginners and their awkwardness.[10] After the four scales, the key changes back to C, where the pianos play a moderate speed trill-like pattern in thirds, in the style of Charles-Louis Hanon or Carl Czerny, while the strings play a small part underneath. This movement is unusual in that the last three blasted chords do not resolve the piece, but rather lead into the next movement.

XII. Fossiles (Fossils)[edit]

Title page to "Fossils" in the manuscript including drawing by the composer

Strings, two pianos, clarinet, and xylophone: here, Saint-Saëns mimics his own composition, the Danse macabre, which makes heavy use of the xylophone to evoke the image of skeletons dancing, the bones clacking together to the beat. The musical themes from Danse macabre are also quoted; the xylophone and the violin play much of the melody, alternating with the piano and clarinet. Allusions to "Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman" (better known in the English-speaking world as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star), the French nursery rhymes "Au clair de la lune", and "J'ai du bon tabac" (the second piano plays the same melody upside down [inversion]), the popular anthem "Partant pour la Syrie", as well as the aria "Una voce poco fa" from Rossini's The Barber of Seville can also be heard. The musical joke in this movement, according to Leonard Bernstein's narration on his recording of the work with the New York Philharmonic, is that the musical pieces quoted are the fossils of Saint-Saëns's time.

XIII. Le cygne (The Swan)[edit]

Two pianos and cello: a slowly moving cello melody (which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water) is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other.

A staple of the cello repertoire, this is one of the best-known movements of the suite, usually in the version for cello with solo piano which was the only publication from this suite in Saint-Saëns's lifetime.

A short ballet solo, The Dying Swan, was choreographed in 1905 by Mikhail Fokine to this movement and performed by Anna Pavlova, who gave some 4,000 performances of the dance and "swept the world".[11]

XIV. Final (Finale)[edit]

Full ensemble: the finale opens on the same trills in the pianos as in the introduction, but soon the wind instruments, the glass harmonica and the xylophone join in. The strings build the tension with a few low notes, leading to glissandi by the piano before the lively main melody is introduced. The Finale is somewhat reminiscent of an American carnival of the 19th century, with one piano always maintaining a bouncy eighth-note rhythm. Although the melody is relatively simple, the supporting harmonies are ornamented in the style that is typical of Saint-Saëns' compositions for piano -- dazzling scales, glissandi and trills. Many of the previous movements are quoted here from the introduction, the lion, the donkeys, hens, and kangaroos. The work ends with a series of six "Hee Haws" from the donkeys, as if to say that the donkey has the last laugh, before the final strong group of C major chords.

Musical allusions[edit]

As the title suggests, the work is programmatical and zoological. It progresses from the first movement, Introduction et marche royale du lion, through portraits of elephants and donkeys ("Personages with Long Ears") to a finale reprising many of the earlier motifs.

Several of the movements are of humorous intent:


In 1949 Ogden Nash wrote a set of humorous verses to accompany each movement for a Columbia Masterworks recording of Carnival of the Animals conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. They were recited by Noël Coward; Kostelanetz and Coward performed the suite with Nash's verses with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1956.[14]

Nash's verses, with their topical references (e.g. to President Truman's piano playing) became dated,[6] and later writers have written new words to accompany the suite, including Johnny Morris,[6] Jeremy Nicholas,[6] Jack Prelutsky,[15] John Lithgow,[16] and Michael Morpurgo, whose version was recorded in 2020.


Various recordings of the Carnival of the Animals have been created. Some notable ones are:

Year Orchestra Pianists Conductor Narrator Ref.
1929 Philadelphia Orchestra Olga Barabini, Mary Binney Montgomery Leopold Stokowski [6]
1949 Kostelanetz Orchestra Leonid Hambro, Jascha Zayde André Kostelanetz Noël Coward [6]
1955 Philharmonia Orchestra Béla Síki, Géza Anda Igor Markevitch [17]
1960 London Symphony Orchestra Julius Katchen, Gary Graffman Skitch Henderson Beatrice Lillie [6]
1961 Boston Pops Orchestra Leo Litwin, Samuel Lipman Arthur Fiedler Hugh Downs [6]
1962 New York Philharmonic Ruth Segal, Naomi Segal Leonard Bernstein Leonard Bernstein [6]
1967 Paris Conservatoire Orchestra Aldo Ciccolini, Alexis Weissenberg Georges Prêtre [17]
1968 Philadelphia Orchestra Claude Frank, Lilian Kallir Eugene Ormandy [17]
1971 City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra John Ogdon, Brenda Lucas Louis Frémaux [6]
1975 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra[n 1] Aloys and Alfons Kontarsky Karl Böhm [17]
1978 Instrumental ensemble [n 2] Michel Béroff, Jean-Philippe Collard [6]
1978 Instrumental ensemble[n 3] Philippe Entremont, Gaby Casadesus Philippe Entremont [6]
1980 London Sinfonietta Pascal Rogé, Cristina Ortiz Charles Dutoit [17]
1981 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Joseph Villa, Patricia Prattis Jennings André Previn [17]
1983 Israel Philharmonic Orchestra Katia and Marielle Labèque Zubin Mehta Itzhak Perlman[n 4] [6]
1985 Instrumental ensemble[n 5] Martha Argerich, Nelson Freire [6]
1988 Nash Ensemble Nash Ensemble pianists (unnamed) [6]
1988 Instrumental ensemble[n 6] David Nettle, Richard Markham Jeremy Nicholas [6]
1989 Instrumental ensemble[n 7] Julian Jacobson, Nigel Hutchinson Barry Wordsworth [6]
1989 Philharmonia Orchestra Nicholas Walker, Laura O'Gorman Philip Ellis [6]
1989 Academy of London Anton Nel, Keith Snell Richard Stamp [17]
1990 Czecho-Slovak RSO[n 8] Marian Lapšanský, Peter Toperczer Ondrej Len'ard Johnny Morris[n 9] [6]
1993 I Musici de Montreal David Owen Norris, Gregory Shaverdian Yuli Turovsky [17]
1994 St Petersburg Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra uncredited Stanislav Gorkovenko [6]
1994 Boston Symphony Garrick Ohlsson, John Browning Seiji Ozawa [6]
1999 Munich Chamber Orchestra[n 10] Anthony and Joseph Paratore Karl Anton Rickenbacher [17]
2003 Instrumental ensemble[n 11] Frank Braley, Michel Dalberto [6]
2005 London Symphony Orchestra uncredited Barry Wordsworth [6]
2013 Cincinnati Pops Orchestra none[n 12] John Morris Russell [6]
2015 Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra Louis Lortie, Hélène Mercier Neeme Järvi [6]
2016 Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Lucas and Arthur Jussen Stéphane Denève [6]
2016 Santa Cecilia Orchestra Martha Argerich, Antonio Pappano Antonio Pappano [6]
2017 Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Richard Casey, Ian Buckle Vasily Petrenko Alexander Armstrong [6]
2019 Utah Symphony Jason Hardink, Kimi Kawashima Thierry Fischer [17]
2020 The Kanneh-Masons Isata Kanneh-Mason, Konya Kaneh-Mason, Jeneba Kaneh-Mason Olivia Colman [21]

Alternative recordings[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  1. ^ Originally released (1975) with Nash's verses recited by Hermione Gingold.[18] Subsequently reissued without narration.
  2. ^ Maurice André, Jacques Cazauran, Guy-Joel Cipriani, Michel Debost, Claude Desurmont, Alain Moglia, Gerard Perotin, Trio à cordes français
  3. ^ Alain Marion, flute; Michel Arrignon, clarinet; Michel Cals, glockenspiel; Michel Cerutti, xylophone; Régis Pasquier, violin I; Yan Pascal Tortelier, violin II; Gérard Caussé, viola; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Gabin Lauridon, double bass.
  4. ^ Also released without narration.[19]
  5. ^ Irena Grafenauer, flute; Eduard Brunner, clarinet; Gidon Kremer, violin; Isabelle van Keulen, violin; Tabea Zimmermann, viola; Mischa Maisky, cello; Georg Hortnagel, double bass; Markus Steckeler, xylophone; Edith Salmen-Weber, glockenspiel
  6. ^ Rebecca Hirsch, Beatrice Harper, violins; Terry Nettle, viola; Jonathan Williams, cello; Rodney Slatford, double bass; Nicholas Vallis-Davies, flute/piccolo; Angela Malsbury, clarinet; Annie Oakley, xylophone; James Strebing, glockenspiel.
  7. ^ Paul Edmund-Davies (flute), Andrew Marriner (clarinet), Alexander Barantschik and Ashley Arbuckle (violins), Alexander Taylor (viola), Ray Adams (cello), Paul Marrion (double-bass), Ray Northcott (percussion)
  8. ^ This recording features virtuoso harmonica player Tommy Reilly playing on a mouth organ instead of a glass harmonica. This mistake was noted and acknowledged by music journalist Fritz Spiegl in a 1984 dictionary of musical ephemera.[20]
  9. ^ Also released without narration
  10. ^ German narration spoken by Peter Ustinov
  11. ^ Renaud Capuçon, Gautier Capuçon, David Guerrier, Esther Hoppe, Florent Jodelet, Marie-Pierre Langlamet, Paul Meyer, Béatrice Muthelet, Emmanuel Pahud and Janne Saksala
  12. ^ This recording is in a reorchestrated version


  1. ^ Stegemann, p. 42
  2. ^ a b c d e Saint-Saëns, third unnumbered introductory page
  3. ^ a b Blakeman, p. 117
  4. ^ Rattner, pp. 185ff
  5. ^ Banès, Anton. "Les Concerts" Archived 27 June 2021 at the Wayback Machine. Le Figaro, 27 February 1922, p. 5
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae Nicholas, Jeremy. "The Gramophone Collection", Gramophone, October 2019, pp. 116–121
  7. ^ "Le carnaval des animaux (Saint-Saëns, Camille)" Archived 19 June 2021 at the Wayback Machine, IMSLP. Retrieved 27 June 2021
  8. ^ Saint-Saëns, title page
  9. ^ "Carnival of the Animals", The Listener, 18: 104, 14 July 1937, archived from the original on 27 June 2021, retrieved 30 March 2011
  10. ^ "Les exécutants devront imiter le jeu d'un débutant et sa gaucherie" "Complete full score" (PDF). Paris: Durand & Cie. Archived (PDF) from the original on 17 April 2016. Retrieved 20 July 2012.
  11. ^ Frankenstein, Alfred, The Carnival of the Animals (liner notes), vol. Capitol SP 8537 and reissued on Seraphim S-60214
  12. ^ a b Griffiths, p. 147
  13. ^ a b "Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals Program Notes, Jan 1, 1929 – Dec 31, 1960" Archived 20 June 2018 at the Wayback Machine, New York Philharmonic archives. Retrieved 26 June 2021
  14. ^ Coward, p. 316
  15. ^ Notes to San Diego Symphony CD SDS-1001 OCLC SDS-1001
  16. ^ a b OCLC 56770131
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Carnival of the Animals", Naxos Music Library. Retrieved 26 June 2021 (subscription required) "Naxos Music Library". Archived from the original on 27 June 2021. Retrieved 27 June 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  18. ^ OCLC 21827232
  19. ^ OCLC 68930501
  20. ^ "'The Carnival of the Animals' Features a Glass Harmonica. This Orchestra Forgot the Glass. | WQXR Editorial". WQXR. 27 August 2018. Retrieved 7 September 2022.
  21. ^ "Carnival | The Kanneh-Masons". Retrieved 20 April 2022.
  22. ^ OCLC 60248672
  23. ^ OCLC 19021977
  24. ^ ISBN 1-55800-586-2
  25. ^ "Dick Dale, Guitarist on Space Mountain's Soundtrack, Dies". 18 March 2019. Archived from the original on 16 April 2021. Retrieved 25 December 2020.
  26. ^ "LA Phil Media launches second season of sound/stage". Hollywood Bowl. 23 February 2021. Archived from the original on 25 April 2021. Retrieved 6 March 2021.


External links[edit]