French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote Le Carnaval des Animaux in 1886. It was originally scored for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute (and piccolo), clarinet (C and B flat), glass harmonica and xylophone, but there are several arrangements, including one for two pianos by Ralph Berkowitz. Designed as a ‘fun’ piece, intended for Saint-Saëns’ students, the work consists of fourteen short movements depicting various animals. Whilst it was performed privately on a few occasions (including a performance at the home of Pauline Viardot, with Franz Liszt in the audience), Saint-Saëns’ forbid Le Carnaval des Animaux to be published or played during his lifetime, believing it detracted from his status as a serious composer. Eventually Saint-Saëns relented, and the The Swan (the penultimate work with the famous cello solo), was published in an arrangement for cello and piano.
Le Carnaval des Animaux has since become Saint-Saëns’ most famous and well-loved piece, and is especially popular with children. The composer’s characterisation of each animal is illuminating and often humorous, with plenty of comical musical ideas and motifs. The Personnages à longues oreilles (movement 8) is thought to be directed at music critics, who are also supposedly the last animals heard during the finale, braying. Movement 10, Pianistes, depicts pianists diligently working at their scales, and movement 4, Tortues employs the well-known Galop infernal from Jacques Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, playing the usually brisk melody at a very slow, whimsical pace.
The following performance was recorded in 1996 (on a home video) at a recital given by Russian pianist Olga Balakleets and myself, as part of the Primavera Musicale Italiana Festival held at St. James’s Church, in Piccadilly, London.