May 12, 2022
By D.T. Baker, ESO Musicologist
The Carnival of the Animals is one of the most famous and beloved works in music. And the person who would be the most annoyed at that fact is the one who wrote it.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was not only an extraordinary musician, he clearly had a sense of humour as well. Both aspects came to the foreground in his charming suite for chamber orchestra and two pianos, composed in 1886. He told his publisher that he wrote it because he enjoyed doing so, and it took his mind off other works that were much more taxing for him.
But while Saint-Saëns would present the work privately, among groups of friends, he ultimately decided he did not want the work to become public, and it would not be published until 1922 – 36 years after he wrote it, and a year after he died.
It’s not hard to understand Saint-Saëns’ point of view. The Carnival of the Animals is a delightful, and – let’s face it – rather silly piece. For us, who are grateful that we have been able to hear it, that’s part of its charm (most of its charm, actually). But the French music world of the late 19th century was a serious and competitive business, and Saint-Saëns was one of its leading figures. 1886 was the same year that he presented his famous “Organ” Symphony and established himself internationally as a conductor and organist, as well as composer.
So, this mind-relaxing bit of frivolity was strictly a private affair to amuse himself and close friends. But once the world got hold of it following its publication, we were all able to share in the work’s high spirits and inspired parody. And beauty, too. Certainly, the lovely cello solo that depicts a swan swimming on a calm pond has become one of the most recognizable melodies for cello ever written, and the serene and mysterious music for the inhabitants of “The Aquarium” has been used or copied by countless others.
And don’t overlook the gentle spoofs of other works, either. The “Tortoises” movement has a fond laugh at Saint-Saëns’ contemporary Jacques Offenbach by presenting his famous “Can-Can,” normally a high-energy, leg-kicking affair, at a tortoise’s pace. “Fossils” quotes bits of nursery rhyme and even Saint-Saëns’ own Danse macabre. And the sprightly “Dance of the Sylphs” from Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust lumbers along to the pace of an elephant.
When the work became the worlds to know, it quickly began to become a favourite. In 1949, American humorist Ogden Nash wrote a series of verses to accompany each of the 14 brief movements of Carnival of the Animals. These verses have often accompanied live performances and recordings ever since.
But others have got in on the act as well. Peter Schickele, better known to the world as “P.D.Q. Bach,” wrote his own verses for his recording. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has presented both the Nash and the Schickele versions in the past, but for the June 12 performances by the ESO, we’ll hear a version the orchestra has not played before.
Saint-Saëns wrote The Carnival of the Animals for two pianos, two percussionists, two violins, and one each of flute, clarinet, viola, cello, and bass. That is typically how the work is presented, but the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra is changing things up for their performances. American arranger Bill Holcombe has re-scored nearly the complete work for a modern-sized orchestra, with plenty of spotlight sections for ensembles within it. Woven into this new arrangement are words by Barbara Goehrig, to be narrated by former ESO Assistant Principal Trumpet Bill Dimmer – a much-loved figure in Edmonton’s music community and a frequent guest of the ESO.
There’s plenty of other music in this concert for young music lovers, too. There are more critters – the wild bears of Elgar, Handel’s Cuckoo and the Nightingale, and even a bumblebee. ESO Resident Conductor Cosette Justo-Valdés leads the menagerie, with help from ESO Concertmaster Robert Uchida and organist Jeremy Spurgeon, in addition to Bill Dimmer as narrator.