Carnival of the Animals

Di Wu and Spencer Myer, pianos
Barbara Fant, narrator
David Danzmayr, conductor

Program Notes

The diverse nature of the music on this evening’s program provides a superb example of the ProMusica experience. We open with music by Lena Frank, a contemporary American composer and a favorite of the orchestra. As our Schubert cycle continues, we turn to “The Little” C major Symphony, a work that balances the drama of Beethoven with the sunny Italian south. We close with a chamber music gem, Saint-Saëns’ beloved “Carnival of the Animals.” Full of charm and wit, you will leave the hall with your spirits lifted.

Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972): Five Dances (aka “Five Scenes”)
Scored for flute (doubling on piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, strings, harp, piano, and percussion.
Five Scenes for orchestra is a compilation of arrangements created from various of my chamber works especially for choreographer John Malashock.  John and I met through an “arranged marriage” kindly brokered by Tommy Philips of the San Diego Symphony, and it was a fortuitous meeting, indeed! As a composer, it is always a pleasure to meet a kindred spirit likewise invested in storytelling and emotional connection, and I found John’s previous work to be, in a word, beautiful.  From the beginning, I loved his approach to our project, taking inspiration from my music (which he selected) but departing in new directions wholly his own.  In these five arrangements from works inspired by scenes of Spanish and Peruvian life, I tried to brighten the music with colors newly offered in an orchestral palette.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Symphony No. 6, D. 589 “The Little C major”
Scored for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration is 27 minutes.
When we think of Vienna, we naturally think of the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert and for good reason—this quartet ushered in the city’s first golden age, known among musicologists as the First Viennese School. The scores by these giants, along with those composed by a host of lesser figures long forgotten, resounded in Vienna’s theaters and in the city streets. But Vienna’s medieval walls could no more keep the “local” music from escaping than it could prevent the sounds from abroad from making their way in. At the start of the 19th century, it was the operas of Rossini, with their alluring melodies and driving accompaniments, that were conquering Europe’s musical capitals—Berlin, Paris, Rome and of course, Vienna. Thus, when the young Schubert searched for inspiration, there was no need to look very far—Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and yes, Rossini—who even moved to Vienna for a period—provided more than enough sustenance for his voracious musical appetite. Schubert digested it all.

Entitled, “The Little C major” so as to differentiate it from his later, grand C major symphony, this work was composed by the twenty-one-year-old composer over the course of several months during the winter of 1817-1818. While few of Schubert’s symphonies were performed during his lifetime, this one appears to have been premiered by a modest chamber-sized group, the core of whom played regularly in the Schubert family home. It was subsequently offered to the Viennese public only four weeks following the composer’s death, a surprising fact given that even the composer’s greatest works typically waited years before being brought to life.

There is little here that is in any way revolutionary, save perhaps that it represents the first time in Schubert’s symphonic oeuvre that the traditional minuet is replaced with a faster paced scherzo. A stately Haydnesque introduction leads directly into a sonata-form Allegro first movement, both dominated by winds, with particular weight given to the flute. As Schubert composed two overtures in the Italian style during this period both featuring forms very similar to this opening Allegro, it comes as no surprise that the influence of Rossini surfaces alongside the shocking harmonic excursions common to Schubert’s individual style. The light-hearted nature of the movement is pure Italian but Schubert ups the ante with a dramatic coda culled from Beethoven’s playbook. Forsaking a true slow movement, Schubert opens his Allegretto with a gentle melody that commences with strings and is answered by winds. The dramatic center section continues Schubert’s intent to juxtapose these two groups rather than truly combine them, while the opening material is beautifully modified upon its return. The scherzo once again looks to Beethoven, particularly in its dramatic outbursts and focus on small motives, while Schubert sets his contrasting trio in a slower (più lento) tempo and the unexpected key of E flat. The finale’s simple opening is infused with the sunny mood of Italy but don’t be fooled—what this Rossini-inspired closing lacks in a brisk tempo it more than compensates for in both variances of mood and harmonic surprises.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Carnival of the Animals
Scored for flute, piccolo, clarinet, percussion, two pianos and strings. Duration is 23 minutes.
Saint-Saëns’ most popular composition was dashed off over a period of several days while the composer was on vacation. The Carnival proved a suitable diversion for the composer, who, following an unsuccessful German concert tour, holed up in a small Austrian town and, with great joy, brought a host of animals to life in sound. Originally scored for eleven players, including two pianos, Saint-Saëns intended his humorous chamber work as a personal joke for close friends and family. Later, realizing its potential, he forbade that the music be published during his lifetime, fearing its popularity would eclipse his reputation as a composer of more serious works. In accordance with the composer’s wishes, Le carnaval des animaux was published four months following his death.

I “Royal March of the Lion”: Saint-Saëns warms to his task with a series of trills and roaring strings. A triumphant cadence leads into a royal march, but the roaring is never far away, an effect Saint-Saëns achieves by way of chromatic runs, perhaps most brilliantly portrayed by the pianos.

II “Hens and Roosters”: clucking, pecking and strutting barnyard animals are faithfully reproduced by violins and upper winds in this whimsical movement. Feathers fly in this furious close, leading directly into…

III “Wild Asses (swift animals)”: brilliant piano passagework captures the speed of these four-legged animals in this movement Saint-Saëns marks Presto furioso. Saint-Saëns may have had the wild donkeys of Tibet (known as Dziggetai) in mind, but one just as easily imagines the fleet-hoofed gazelle or other members of the antelope family.

IV “Tortoises”: In the first of Saint-Saëns’ musical jokes, the composer modifies one of the most popular tunes of the day, the spirited Can-Can. All the rage on the European stage, Saint-Saëns reins in Offenbach’s “pop” tune, slowing it to a chelonian crawl.

V “The Elephant”: Not yet ready to relinquish his slow-moving farce, Saint-Saëns borrows two more delicate melodies, Berlioz’s “Dance of the Sylphs” and a fleeting quote from Mendelssohn’s delicate A Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, both assigned to the “elfin” double basses.

VI “Kangaroos”: this minute-long piano duo needs no description, as shifting meters, accelerandi (accelerating) and ritardandi (slowing) deftly capture the athleticism of these bounding marsupials.

VII “Aquarium”: Among the most evocative movements of the Carnival, Saint-Saëns’ powers of invention take to the water: the glass harmonica (often played on glockenspiel) suggests sparkling water droplets, Chopin-inspired piano arpeggios portray the undulating currents and gliding fish are depicted by the slower moving strings.

VIII “People with Long Ears”: no doubt intended to poke fun at the music critics, or perhaps those Saint-Saëns regarded as jackasses, this brief movement calls on violins to imitate the brash braying of the donkey.

IX “The Cuckoo in the Deep Woods”: against darkly voiced chorale-style piano phrasing, the clarinet calls out all of two pitches. Their unpredictable rhythm only underscores the fact that cuckoos simply don’t keep very good musical time.

X “Aviary”: As might be expected, the flute here takes wing, it’s perky passagework punctuated by piano trills. Don’t miss the tremolo strings filling the air with subtle thrumming in the background of this aviary.

XI “Pianists”: Another of Saint-Saëns’ jokes, we find ourselves a fly on the wall of a beginner’s piano lesson. Pedantic scales, trills, etc., the bane of every musician, are dispatched à la Hannon, some more awkwardly than others, as the strings punctuate the key changes with explosive chords. The coda leads directly into…

XII “Fossils”: Here Saint-Saëns quotes a series of musical fossils, including Twinkle Twinkle, Rossini’s Barber of Seville and even the composer’s own Danse Macabre at the start, which sets the tone of skeletons dancing.

XIII “The Swan”: The most famous movement of the twelve and the only piece of the set that Saint-Saëns agreed be published during his lifetime, The Swan is passionately scored for solo cello and piano, whose rippling 16th note accompaniment is thought to imitate the swan’s feet below the surface. Famed ballerina Anna Pavlova performed a choreographed version of this romantic movement, “The Dying Swan,” over 4000 times during her illustrious career.

X “Finale”: scored for the full ensemble, this rousing closer sports a spirited melody punctuated by a final curtain call by several of our beloved creatures, including dazzling pianists (whose scales have clearly paid off!), lions, hens and kangaroos. And as always, the jackass has the final word.

© Marc Moskovitz