Camille Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals: Simulation in the Whimsical

There’s this whimsical little musical suite that I love called The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns that consists of fourteen movements, with each representing a different group or species of animal:

  1. Introduction and Lion’s Royal March
  2. Hens and Cocks
  3. Wild Asses: Swift Animals
  4. Tortoises
  5. The Elephant
  6. Kangaroos
  7. Aquarium
  8. Personages with Long Ears
  9. The Cuckoo in the Deep Woods
  10. Aviary
  11. Pianists
  12. Fossils
  13. The Swan
  14. Finale

Since its composition in 1886, different pieces have been appropriated by Disney’s FantasiaHow I Met Your Mother, the film version of Charlotte’s WebThe Godfather Part II, and Weird Al. One recorded version features Jack Prelutsky reading from his poetry. It’s lends itself well to an audience of children, with its lack of pretension and its diversity of sounds and pitches.

Each of those sounds attempts, either as a group or individually, to portray the character featured in the movement. It’s representational music, and it isn’t meant to deceive. It doesn’t seem to be attempting to force the listener to come to some sort of conclusion about the banality or beauty or simplicity of existence (though the inclusion of pianists and fossils in this tracklist certainly does comment on mortality and human nature, but those are other posts)—it does all of these things, instead, with ease.

Saint-Saëns decision to compose a suite that doesn’t merely wish to convey a story or a set of emotions, but that characterizes a set of familiar beings in a way that simultaneously brings them to life and renders them art objects whose existence can’t quite be traced back to anything solid, had to have been intentional. These wild asses and tortoises and swift animals are taken from the real—with physical proof of their existence—to the imaginary and the fragmentary. They’re shells of their earthly selves (doubly so, in the case of the fossils), but  Saint-Saëns’ compositions still allow them to express so much. And that’s all Saint-Saëns seems to want: for his carnival to express the feelings for him, no matter their fantastical existence. Reality doesn’t seem to be the primary object here, despite the (intentional) fact that each movement is founded inextricably in the real.

Published at See Gauge Blog on April 4, 2013.

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