Long before I began writing this blog, I knew that one of the best, longest-lasting gifts one can give a child is an appreciation – a feeling – for classical music. With that in mind, for the past few years during the gift-giving season, I have featured several videos especially for children: two short films by Andrew Rangell, an awe-inspiring performance of Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy by the ten-year-old Sarah Chang, and last year, a performance of Prokofiev’s beloved Peter and the Wolf. I have every intention of continuing that tradition, and this year, I want to share a piece of music that was given to me as a child: Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals.
Saint-Saëns, who lived from 1835 to 1921, composed the Carnival in 1886, but, concerned that such a lighthearted work might harm his reputation as a serious composer, allowed only private performances of it during his lifetime. Its public premiere took place in 1922, and it quickly became one of his best-loved works.
In the late 1940s, Goddard Lieberman of Columbia Records and conductor Andre Kostelanetz had the inspired idea of adding poetry to Saint-Saëns’ score. Ogden Nash was their first and only choice as poet, as was Noël Coward as speaker for the projected recording. The result of this collaboration was released in 1950, and I was introduced to The Carnival of the Animals not long afterward. I still have that record, by the way. It may have played a large role in my love of poetry as well as classical music.
In the video that follows, Andre Kostelanetz conducts the New York Philharmonic. Leonid Hambro and Jascha Zayde are the piano soloists, Julius Baker is the flute soloist on “The Birds”, and Frank Miller is the cellist on “The Swan”.
Incidentally, while I don’t speak French myself, I understand that the correct (that is to say, Saint-Saëns’ own) pronunciation of his name, is “sa(n) sonce”.
Camille St. Saëns was wracked with pains
When people addressed him as “Saint Sains.”
He held the human race to blame
Because it could not pronounce his name.
So he turned with metronome and fife
To glorify other forms of life.
Be quiet, please, for here begins
His salute to feathers, furs, and fins.
Royal March of the Lion
The lion is the king of beasts
And husband of the lioness.
Gazelles and things on which he feasts
Address him as Your Highoness.
There are those who admire that roar of his
In the African jungles and veldts,
But I think, wherever a lion is,
I’d rather be somewhere else.
Hens and Roosters
The rooster is a roistering hoodlum,
His battle cry is cock-a-doodlum.
Hands in pockets, cap over eye,
He whistles at pullets passing by.
Have ever you harked to the jackass wild
Which scientists call the onager?
It sounds like the laugh of an idiot child
Or a hepcat on a harmoniger.
But do not sneer at the jackass wild,
There is method in his heehaw,
For with maidenly blush and accent mild,
The jenny-ass answers, shee-haw.
Come crown my brow with leaves of myrtle,
I know the tortoise is a turtle.
Come carve my name in stone immortal,
I know the turtoise is a tortle.
I know to my profound despair
I bet on one to beat a hare.
I also know I’m now a pauper
Because of its tortley, turtley, torpor.
Elephants are useful friends,
Equipped with handles at both ends.
They have a wrinkled moth-proof hide;
Their teeth are upside down, outside.
If you think the elephant preposterous,
You’ve probably never seen a rhinosterous.
The kangaroo can jump incredible.
He has to jump because he’s edible.
I could not eat a kangaroo
But many fine Australians do.
Those with cookbooks as well as boomerangs
Prefer him in tasty kangaroo meringues.
Some fish are minnows,
Some are whales.
People like dimples,
Fish like scales.
Some fish are slim,
And some are round.
They don’t get cold,
They don’t get drowned.
But every fish wife
Fears for her fish.
What we call mermaids
And they call merfish.
In the world of mules,
There are no rules.
The Cuckoo in the Depth of the Woods
(For some reason, this verse has been omitted
from the recording linked to above.)
Cuckoos lead bohemian lives,
They fail as husbands and as wives.
Therefore, they cynically disparage
Everybody else’s marriage.
Puccini was Latin, and Wagner Teutonic,
And birds are incurably philharmonic.
Suburban yards and rural vistas
Are filled with avian Andrews Sisters.
The skylark sings a roundelay,
The crow sings “The Road to Mandalay.”
The nightingale sings a lullaby,
And the seagull sings a gullaby.
That’s what shepherds listened to in Arcadia
Before somebody invented the radia.
Some claim that pianists are human,
And quote the case of Mr. Truman.
St. Saëns, upon the other hand,
Considered them a scurvy band.
Ape-like they are, he said, and simian,
Instead of normal men and wimian.
At midnight in the museum hall,
The fossils gathered for a ball.
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the mastodonic wassail,
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
Cheer up, sad world, he said, and winked.
It’s kind of fun to be extinct.
The swan can swim while sitting down.
For pure conceit he takes the crown.
He looks in the mirror over and over,
And claims to have never heard of Pavlova.
Now we reach the grand finale,
Noises new to sea and land
Issue from the skillful band.
All the strings contort their features,
Imitating crawly creatures.
All the brasses look like mumps
From blowing umpah umpah umps.
In outdoing Barnum and Bailey and Ringling,
St. Saëns has done a miraculous thingling.