SAINT-SAENS Carnival of the Animals



Camille Saint-Saens (October 1835 - December 1921)

Composed In



19 minutes


2 pianos, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet, glass harmonica, xylophone


Like a trip to the zoo, Carnivals of the Animals was composed out of fun when Camille Saint-Saens was enjoying his leisure time at a small Austrian village. However, it was so full of musical jokes that Saint-Saens worried that it would damage his reputation. He did not allow the work to be publicly performed or published, except for one movement, The Swan. It premiered almost 30 years after it was composed, and remains to this day as one of his most famous works.


About the Composition

The piece consists of 14 movements, forming a suite. Each movement introduces us to an animal or a group of animals, with the instruments mimicking their cries or the way they move.

  • Introduction and Royal March of the Lion
    The introduction opens with a bold tremolo theme by the piano, playing a pair of opposite scales and introducing a “march” theme. The piano offers low runs of octaves, resembling the roar of a lion.
  • Hens and Roosters
    The pianos and the strings are articulated and short, depicting the pecking of grains. The piano offers a vast theme based on the roosters’ crow.
  • Wild Donkeys Swift Animals
    Donkeys are known for their speed, which is depicted by the two pianos in fast running passages.
  • Tortoises
    In this movement, Saint-Saens makes a musical joke, using Offenbach’s “Infernal Gallop” (which we know as Can Can), slowing down considerably to represent one of the world’s slowest animals.
  • The Elephant
    The double bass, with its ability to sound low and cumbersome yet graceful at the same time, is used to depict the elephant. The composer also jokingly references Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, which is a piece of exquisite fairy music.
  • Kangaroos
    The pianos represent these jumpers, with grace notes that give a leaping, bouncing sound that depicts kangaroos chasing each other.
  • Aquarium
    This movement is rich with rippling figures, creating a beautiful dream-like picture. Originally written with a part for glass harmonica, it is now replaced by the glockenspiel, which adds to the magic of an underwater world.
  • Characters with Long Ears
    This movement was originally meant to represent Saint-Saens’s music critics. This sarcastic movement consists of only violins and has piercing high notes and low buzzing notes.
  • The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods
    Throughout this movement, the piano plays muted chords while the clarinet repeats the same two pitches.
  • Aviary
    This movement comprises a flute, a piano and the strings, offering a sound reminiscent of the buzz in a jungle.
  • Pianists
    Saint-Saens makes fun of the beginner pianists practising their exercises, with the pianos showcasing the major scale.
  • Fossils
    The composer mimics his work in this movement, quoting his orchestra piece “Danse Macabre” with the use of xylophone, suggesting old bones. There is also a hint of “Twinkle Twinkle” hidden in this movement.
  • The Swan
    The most famous movement, it offers a slow, beautiful melody played by the cello, with melancholic piano accompaniment. It resembles the swan’s feet, hidden under the water.
  • Finale
    The work closes with a grand mixture of the animals we have met and concludes with a jeer from the long-eared characters.

Fun Facts about the Composer

  • He learned how to read at the age of 3, completed his first composition at 4, and spoke fluent Latin at 7.
  •  When Debussy applied to join the Institut de France, he did everything he could to block Debussy from the selection.
  • His name is pronounced as “San-Sohn(ce)”, with a hint of “s” at the end.
  • He was also proficient in botany, mathematics and geology.
  • He could not bear the thought of confronting his would-be bride with the idea of marriage, opting instead to write a letter to her brother asking if he would like to become his brother-in-law.

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