A precocious young musician, Saint-Saëns began piano lessons at the age of two, and his first composition dates from when he was just four years old. He later became a celebrated organist (described by Liszt as the finest in the world), a fêted composer, and also a well-recognised poet and playwright.
But although his professional life was marked by a succession of high points, Saint-Saëns also faced several disappointments. One such event was his 1985 tour of Germany, where audiences, objecting to Saint-Saëns’ earlier criticisms of their national hero, Wagner, publically disdained his music.
Saint-Saëns withdrew to a small Austrian village, where he would begin work on what would become his most significant contribution to the classical canon – his third symphony. But he was temporarily distracted by the idea of writing a playful musical suite for performance on Shrove Tuesday. This work became Le Carnaval des animaux.
While Le Carnaval was performed privately on numerous occasions it was not published during Saint-Saëns’ lifetime – for fear it would detract from his brand as a serious composer. The exception to this was the famous cello solo The Swan, which forms the work’s penultimate movement. Other animals represented in the Suite’s fourteen movements include a stately lion, a lumbering elephant, a bounding kangaroo, and – Saint-Saëns’ personal joke – a pair of pianists. Witty references and satirical gestures and are scattered throughout the work, the spirit of which has been perfectly captured by the set of poems written by Ogden Nash and which today accompany Le Carnaval’s performance.