SAINT-SAËNS Camille, Carnival of the Animals

As well as being a prolific and extremely successful composer, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) was a brilliant piano virtuoso and a hugely respected teacher whose pupils included Fauré and André Messager. Both of them recalled his gifts as a musical humourist: he would often lighten the serious mood of lessons with pastiches and caricatures. This tendency found its fullest expression in Le carnaval des animaux, now one of Saint-Saëns’s most famous pieces, but originally conceived as a private entertainment. A masterly parody (lampooning, among others, Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Saint-Saëns’s own Danse macabre), it was written for a Shrove Tuesday concert on 9 March 1886 given at the home of the cellist Charles-Joseph Lebouc, with Saint-Saëns and Louis Diémer as the pianists and Paul Taffanel as the flautist. Often rather severe and earnest in public, Saint-Saëns wanted to be known as a composer of serious pieces, so he was uncertain how a wider audience might react to his ‘grand zoological fantasy’, and apart from The Swan he did not allow any of Carnaval to be published during his lifetime. Performances were usually given among friends: two weeks after the premiere, it was played by the chamber music society called ‘La Trompette’ (for which Saint-Saëns had written his Septet), and on 2 April 1886 it was given at the salon of Pauline Viardot, by special request of Franz Liszt, on what turned out to be his last visit to Paris. 


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