Our introduction to music would have been a lullaby sung by a mother as she rocks her baby into blissful sleep. Music is with us all the time, both on radio, television, and online. Some radio stations are entirely dedicated to broadcasting music of all kinds: classical, opera, jazz, pop, rock, electronic, folk and so on. Other mainstream stations include various styles of music in their regular schedules.
Even within the classical sphere there are many different styles. I have been presenting a weekly programme on a local radio station for almost 28 years. Although it can be termed as classical, I try to present different styles and periods stretching along several centuries. My aim is to reach as many people as I can. My programme is 15% talk and 85% pure music. I limit myself to saying something from which every listener could benefit and learn, short and sweet.
Music can be a source of great humour, because vocally or instrumentally, it can poke harmless fun at people and situations. The great Mozart did it in a number of works which he called Musical Jokes in which musicians are deliberately required to play badly.
Normal life has its ups and downs. We all have problems, and when the going gets tough, one of the best tonics is to sit down, relax and listen to calm, soothing music. Even jingling chimes in a soft breeze helps calm down restless babies and tired adults.
Some of you may remember Radju Bronja, Malta's only non-commercial radio station entirely dedicated to cultural programmes, with news bulletins at regular intervals. I presented a series of programmes such as "Nationalism in Music", "Together with Terpsichore" (which was about dance music named after Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance) and "Humour in Dance”. My choice for the opening and closing music of the latter series was the Parade of all the Animals which is the concluding movement of a work called "The Carnival of the Animals".
This brilliant work was composed by a French composer, Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). He was very popular in France and abroad but he had his critics too. He liked to be considered as a serious composer. He was a brilliant pianist, organist and even conducted orchestras. In 1885-86 he went on a concert tour of Germany, which was not very successful. He then visited Austria and was staying in a small remote village. He decided to write what he called a "grand zoological fantasy" which would become his most famous and popular Symphony n.3, the Organ Symphony. He was taken so much with his fantasy that he finished it in February 1886. He called it "The Carnival of the Animals".
Many considered Saint-Saens as eccentric and hardly changed their opinion when he proclaimed a total ban on the public performing and publishing of the delightful score. He preferred to be known as a serious composer, little realising that even good light, humorous music needs to be written with great skill, a gift he certainly did not lack.
The composer had his way and the first performance took place privately in Paris on 25 February 1886. A second private performance followed in April in the presence of his friend, the great Hungarian pianist-composer Franz Liszt.
In 1887 the composer made an exception and permitted the publishing of the penultimate movement "The Swan" for cello and piano. In his will he stated that he would allow the publishing of the whole work only after his death. Saint-Saens was a great traveller and happened to be in Algiers when he suddenly died aged 86 in December 1921. The first public performance was in Paris on 25 February 1922, exactly 36 years after the work's first (private) performance. It has maintained great popularity ever since.
This delightful musical romp is in 14 movements. It is scored for two pianos, two violins, viola, cello, double-bass, flute, piccolo, clarinet in C and clarinet in B, glass harmonica and xylophone. Very often it is performed with a glockenspiel instead of the glass harmonica.
Here is a brief description of each movement:
1. Introduction and Royal March of the Lion: in which the opening fanfare effect leads to a pompous march honouring the king of the beasts.
2. Hens and Roosters: in which some of the instruments imitate the pecking of grain as well as the roosters' crowing.
3. Wild Donkeys: which is one of the most energetic movements, with music reflecting the frenetic dashing about at great speed of the very fast, wild donkeys from Tibet, known as dziggetai.
4. Tortoise: here there is a depiction of the slow, dragging walk of a tortoise.
5. Elephant: the massive, clumsy elephant dances a slow waltz.
6. Kangaroo: the music describes the hopping and springing of a kangaroo.
7 Aquarium: a very beautiful, relaxing piece in which one could easily imagine the silent movements of fish in an aquarium, which some find extremely soothing and relaxing.
8. Characters with Long Ears: in this shortest of all the movements the music is dominated by sounds which remind one of the braying of donkeys. This is a jibe at music critics, which the composer likens to donkeys.
9. Cuckoo: the clarinet imitates the call of the cuckoo deep in the woods, and to create better effect the clarinettist plays this offstage.
10. Aviary: this is the depiction of birds buzzing and singing around in a jungle atmosphere.
11. Pianists: here the composer classifies pianists as "animals", who are continuously and boringly practicing their scales like mechanical robots.
12. Fossils: this is another satirical piece, in which the composer considers some other composers as being fossilised in their own way. He lampoons his own Danse Macabre, with the xylophone standing in for rattling bones. He also adds a touch from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". One can even hear a phrase from Rossini's "Una Voce Poco Fa" from "Il Barbiere di Siviglia".
13. The Swan: the most beautiful of the whole work. It is meant to describe the graceful movement of a swan on the placid surface of a lake. Many know this from a different interpretation, known as "The Dying Swan". In 1905, this music was used by Mikhail Fokine to his choreography for a short ballet. The famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova danced this over 4,000 times by the time she died in 1931.
14. Finale: the rollicking finale has all the animals in a merry mix, with the pianos dominating the scene. Several of the animal motifs from previous movements reappear, but the most prominent feature is the braying of the donkeys which for all the pride, bulk and beauty of some animals, end up having the last word.
One could easily find many versions of this work on YouTube. The version in my collection is that of the Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire, directed by Georges Pretre.
For those of you who have never heard "The Carnival of the Animals", it will be a pleasant discovery. For those already familiar with it, it is always a pleasure to go back to it from time to time.
Click here to listen to "The Carnival of the Animals", or find the video in the Arts and Culture videos section.