First, we start by learning a bit about French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, who lived from 1835-1921. Here are a few fun facts about Camille Saint-Saëns:
- Like Mozart, Saint-Saëns was a child prodigy. He played his debut concert at age 10, where he offered to perform any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory.
- Saint-Saëns was an accomplished organist and worked as a church organist upon finishing his studies at the Paris Conservatory. Upon hearing him play, Franz Liszt declared that Saint-Saëns was the greatest organist in the world.
- Saint-Saëns taught composer Gabriel Fauré, who in turn taught Maurice Ravel.
- “The Carnival of the Animals” is one of Saint-Saëns’ best known works. Completed in 1886, it contains 14 short movements and was originally written for an ensemble including two pianos, strings, flute, clarinet, xylophone, and glass harmonica. It was such a humorous work that Saint-Saëns insisted that it not be published in his lifetime, as he was afraid it would detract from his image as a serious composer! The only movement he allowed to be published in his lifetime was “The Swan.”
Next, we listen to a few movements from “The Carnival of the Animals.” I ask students to guess what animal they think each movement represents. Then we discuss how Saint-Saëns represented that animal in the music using instrumentation, tempo, and pitch. The movements that I have found that work the best for this activity are:
- "IV. Turtles”—this clever piece contains the melody from Offenbach’s famous “Can-Can Song” played very, very slowly. Be sure to play students a snippet of the original, up-to-tempo “Can-Can” theme first so they get the full effect!
- "V. The Elephant”—students usually guess this one correctly as soon as they hear the first low melody notes!
- "VII. The Aquarium”—many students recognize this piece from its use in TV commercials and movies. It has a magical, floating feeling that perfectly depicts a school of underwater creatures as they dart and swim around.
- “X. The Aviary”—the opening flute solo sounds just like a bird song, making this movement easy to recognize!
Finally, I tell students that it is their turn to create a piece that represents an animal! I put several animal names in a hat (at this most recent class the animals included a bear, frog, snake, kitten, snail, and a cheetah) and each student must draw a name from the hat and improvise a piece at the piano to represent that animal. The other students then must guess which animal they hear! I remind students to ask themselves the following questions, both when creating their improvs and when listening to the other students:
- Is this animal noisy or quiet, big or small?
- Does this animal move quickly or slowly?
- Does this animal hop, or move smoothly?
- Is this animal friendly or scary?
It is always fun to hear what creative ideas the students come up with to depict each animal—and it is usually surprisingly easy for the other students to recognize each animal correctly! This activity often jump starts ideas for new compositions for my students that we can continue working on in their private lessons.
What do you think? Have you ever used “The Carnival of the Animals” as part of a lesson? I would love to hear your ideas in the comments!