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.
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.
The pianos represent these jumpers, with grace notes that give a leaping, bouncing sound that depicts kangaroos chasing each other.
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.
This movement comprises a flute, a piano and the strings, offering a sound reminiscent of the buzz in a jungle.
Saint-Saens makes fun of the beginner pianists practising their exercises, with the pianos showcasing the major scale.
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.
The work closes with a grand mixture of the animals we have met and concludes with a jeer from the long-eared characters.