The attitude of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw towards Saint-Saëns’ music was fairly typical for the time. He accused him of plagiarism, saying that if Bach, Meyerbeer and Gounod were taken out of the scores, all that would remain would be “nothing but graceful knick-knacks, barcarolles, serenades, ballets and the like”.
Camille Saint-Saëns [1835 – 1921] was, so the story goes, a prodigiously gifted composer and polymath who squandered his talents by writing technically proficient, elegant but superficially pleasing music devoid of emotion; a conservative composer and curmudgeon who detested novelty and experimentation, and an acerbic critic who compared Debussy, Stravinsky and others of their ilk to bomb throwing anarchists.
This is a rather unkind caricature for his main crime in the eyes of his critics was to continue writing music in a style that had long gone out of fashion. How times change – we are used to living in an age where septuagenarian rock bands and elderly Italian crooners remain popular. But the seismic changes in classical music of a century ago – more revolution than evolution – made Saint-Saëns seem like a fossil from another era, possibly one from his most famous work, The Carnival of the Animals.
In the year of its composition (1886), Saint-Saëns was at the height of his fame as a composer, conductor, pianist and organist. He had just received an uncharacteristically positive review of his concert in London from George Bernard Shaw who, among other things, complimented him on his daring use of a trumpet in his Septet.
His subsequent concert tour in Germany was a different matter. Controversy was stirred up in the press over seemingly heretical remarks Saint-Saëns had made earlier in which he disapproved of “fanatical Wagnerism”. Public hostility led to rebukes for his “incomprehensible” lack of tact, catcalls from audiences, the cancellation of concerts, and cartoons depicting him fleeing the concert platform under a shower of rotten vegetables. While his subsequent concerts in Vienna and Prague were fêted, he was clearly unnerved by his treatment in Germany and sought relaxation in an Austrian village where he composed his infectious ensemble showpiece, The Carnival of the Animals. Writing to his publishers at the time, he admitted he should have been working on his commission for his Third Symphony but writing The Carnival of the Animals was “so much fun” (mais c’est si amusant!).
The work was premiered at the annual Mardi Gras concert of his friend, the cellist Charles-Joseph Lebouc on 9 March 1886. Another performance took place a few days later for the prestigious music society La Tompette followed by a private performance for Liszt who was visiting Paris. Saint-Saëns seems to have been taken aback by the popularity of his musical prank; he forbade the work’s publication until after his death (apart from The Swan) and restricted it to the occasional private performance. Clearly the shock of his poor reception in Germany and his fear of ridicule had not worn off.
Saint-Saëns was not the first composer to depict animals in music but these 14 short pieces, which showcase different instruments, have never been bettered for their wit and inventiveness and their lasting appeal to younger audiences.
The music is full of in-jokes and musical allusions. The opening Introduction and Royal March of the Lions borrows from Saint-Saëns’ own Mélodies Persanes, with Lisztian octaves supplying the roaring of the lions. In Tortoises, the strings play a painfully slow version of the Can-can gallop from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Music played by higher register instruments in Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust are given to a lumbering double bass in The Elephant to comic effect. In the most elaborate homage Fossils – marked Allegro ridicolo – three popular French nursery rhymes are heard as well as the popular anthem Partant pour la Syrie, the aria Una voce poco fa from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and Saint-Saëns own Danse Macabre. Homages are given to the composer Rameau (Cocks and Hens) and the French impressionists in the scintillating Aquarium. As might be expected from Saint-Saëns, pianos are given special treatment: playing at breakneck speed for Wild Asses, and condemned to an outer circle of piano hell by performing exercises in Pianists. The work is rounded off in a riotous carnivalesque parade with the jackasses (generally thought to represent music critics) having the last word.
Since its first performance in Paris by the elderly cellist Lebouc, The Swan has become one of the most famous and beloved pieces of classical music. It became the ballerina Anna Pavlova’s signature piece in the ballet The Dying Swan which she brought to audiences worldwide with the choreography of Mikhail Fokine.
It does seem odd that Saint-Saëns wanted to suppress the publication of The Carnival of the Animals (which even he must have realised was a sure-fire winner) but perhaps he was trying to protect his image in the prevailing political climate. In the same year, he resigned from the Société Nationale de Musique, the music society he had set up with others in 1871 to promote new French music; disagreements over its future direction with Franck and d’Indy had become intractable, especially over the issue of promoting foreign music. Ravel later followed suit some time after the death of Franck and set up a rival society, the Société musicale indépendante. Plus ça change.
It is tempting to say that Saint-Saëns was both ahead of his time and firmly rooted in the past. His sophisticated wit combined with deep seriousness is found in the music of Francis Poulenc, once described “half bad boy, half monk” (echoing an observation of Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto that it “begins like Bach and ends like Offenbach”). His insistence on classical forms seems to be neo-classicism avant la lettre, but it was later explored by Stravinsky and others.
With hindsight, Saint-Saëns is the quintessential French composer, tout court. The composer Alfred Bruneau said at Saint-Saëns’ funeral that “…his music expressed the character of France: the clarity, the finesse, the vigour and the impeccable sense of form and style”. He saw musical development as an orderly process, building on the work of predecessors, not as a blatant disregard for tradition – or as he put it – “ like…the man who abandons all keys and piles up dissonances which he neither introduces nor concludes and who, as a result, grunts his way through music as a pig through a flower garden”. Of his own compositional method, he once wrote in a letter to his publisher “I write two pages of music a day. I scrape, I file, and I chisel; it is true happiness. This is the way I began and this is the way I want to finish”.
The Carnival of the Animals has itself has spawned many imitations and influenced popular culture in numerous cartoons and children’s books. Brazil even has its own Carnaval dos animais or “Blocão” in Copacabana during the carnival season in which flamboyantly dressed dogs and other pets are given their own procession.
George Bernard Shaw wrote that “without music we shall surely perish of drink, morphia, and all sorts of artificial exaggerations of the cruder delights of man”. But with The Carnival of the Animals, we can all raise a glass of champagne and join in the fun.
Published 16 June 2015 on primephonic