Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des animaux is a trifling piece that over time has caught up with his symphonies and almost all of his operas in terms of popularity. It was composed in Austria in February 1886 during a holiday following a demanding concert tour and was meant to be performed in private homes on the last day of Shrovetide (known as Carnaval in France). Two pianos dominate in the unusual orchestral formation. For them alone the composer wrote the pieces Hémiones (animaux véloces) and Kangourous. Le Coucou au fond des bois is also for the two pianos, but “in the wings” an unseen clarinet quietly provides the cuckoo. In Pianistes the piano ensemble is supported by the approving voices of the strings, in Volière there is the typical solo flute and Aquarium features the rarity that is the glass harmonica (normally performed using bells). In the Finale all of the participants of the Carnaval come together.
The suite of fourteen pieces was written in just a few days. This speed was possible as Saint-Saëns turned to music by other composers. For the piece Poules et coqs the composer borrowed the “clucking” from Rameau’s La Poule and added his own theme of a cockerel crowing (in general Le Carnaval des animaux has a prototype in the French suites of Rameau and Couperin which are often just as extravagant). For Tortues he used a theme from the impetuous Galop infernal from Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers which is slowed down to the extent that it literally “crawls” over all the string instruments. In L'Éléphant the double-bass performs the theme of the ethereal waltz borrowed from Berlioz’ Danse des sylphes.
The idea of how to convey the sound of a donkey braying (Personnages à longues oreilles) has clear parallels with Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In terms of its minimalism, arguably Personnages surpasses miniature pieces by Anton von Webern. The piece Fossiles opens with a theme from Saint-Saëns’ own Danse macabre, there is a continuation of early French songs and in the finale there is a detectable fragment of Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini (whom Saint-Saëns knew personally but considered him as an ancient “relic”). Fossiles is the only piece that the composer accompanied with a drawing which depicts a dinosaur’s skeleton.
This “fun” collage (that’s the best way to describe) would have been an honour for any postmodernist composer, but Saint-Saëns thought differently. It was only Le Cygne for cello and two pianos that he allowed to be printed and performed publicly; all other parts were jealously kept out of public hands, preserving his reputation as a serious musician.