The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens

Instructor: Laura Armstrong

Laura is a freelance musician and has taught college Music courses and holds a D.M.A. in Music Performance.

The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns is a colorful and popular work for two pianos and small orchestra. It is often performed in concerts as a way of introducing classical music to audiences.

"In outdoing Barnum and Bailey, and Ringling,

Saint-Saëns has done a miraculous thingling."

- Ogden Nash

The Carnival of the Animals album cover
album cover

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Camille Saint-Saëns, a French composer of the Romantic period, was extremely prolific and composed works in nearly every musical genre. His best-known works are Le Carnaval des Animaux (The Carnival of the Animals), his opera Samson et Dalila, piano and cello concertos, the tone poem Danse macabre, and his Third Symphony. A child prodigy, he began composing before he was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at age thirteen. He was a gifted pianist and organist, and Franz Liszt even considered him the greatest organist in the world. Saint-Saëns also toured as a pianist and performed concertos along with premieres of his own works.

Camille Saint-Saens
Camille Saint-Saens

By his thirties, Saint-Saëns was one of the most famous living composers. He composed over 300 works throughout his long life, and although his works were initially highly praised for their originality and his talent, in later years his works were criticized for his musical conservatism. In 1886, Saint-Saëns composed The Carnival of the Animals while he was on vacation in a small village in Austria. Despite the enjoyment he had in composing this piece, he feared that it was too whimsical and could interfere with his public image as a composer of serious works. He banned all public performances of the work, except one movement (The Swan) until after his death.

The Carnival of the Animals - 1886

The Carnival of the Animals received its public premiere on February 26, 1922, thirty years after its composition. The piece is a suite of fourteen movements for flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, glass harmonica, xylophone, two pianos, and strings. Saint-Saëns amusingly portrays different animals through the use of the different instruments alone and in combination with each other.

Original manuscript of Aquarium
Aquarium manuscript score

In The Elephant, for example, a solo double bass plays a clumsy-sounding waltz melody while accompanied by a piano. Aquarium uses sweeping chords on the piano along with the tinkling sounds of the glass harmonica to create an underwater effect. The flute plays the role of a bird in Aviary with fast trill-like passages that sound like fluttering wings.

The most famous movement, The Swan, features a solo cello accompanied by both pianos. It depicts the gracefulness of a swimming swan with a lyrical and tender melody played by the cello while both pianos portray rippling water with flowing chords. Saint-Saëns composed The Swan for the cellist Charles-Joseph Lebouc and the beloved work has been arranged for nearly every solo instrument.

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