Le Carnaval des Animaux’ (The Carnival of the Animals) is a musical suite of fourteen movements by the French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns.
Le Carnaval was composed in February 1886 while Saint-Saëns was vacationing in a small Austrian village. It was originally scored for a chamber group of flute, clarinet, two pianos, glass harmonica, xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass, but is usually performed today with a full orchestra of strings, and with a glockenspiel substituting for the rare glass harmonica.
Saint-Saëns, apparently concerned that the piece was too frivolous and likely to harm his reputation as a serious composer, suppressed performances of it and only allowed one movement, Le Cygne, to be published in his lifetime. Only small private performances were given for close friends like Franz Liszt.
Saint-Saëns did, however, include a provision which allowed the suite to be published after his death, and it has since become one of his most popular works. It is a favorite of music teachers and young children, along with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.
Strings without double-bass, two pianos, flute, and harmonica: This is one of the more musically rich movements. The melody is played by the flute, backed by the strings, on top of tumultuous, glissando like runs in the piano. The first piano plays a descending ten-on-one ostinato, while the second plays a six-on-one. These figures, plus the occasional glissando from the harmonica, are very evocative of a peaceful, dimly-lit aquarium. This intermittent section where the pianos play high sixteenths is reminiscent of parts of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker.