Camille Saint-Saëns wrote The Carnival of the Animals essentially for fun whilst on holiday in Austria in 1886. He had already achieved considerable fame throughout his native France and Europe and, concerned to maintain his reputation as a serious composer, save for The Swan, he allowed only one public performance of the suite in his lifetime. Luckily for us he did authorise posthumous publication and, despite Saint-Saëns’ misgivings about the piece, his kudos is still intact even though Carnival is probably his best-known work!
Carnival – a “Grand Zoological Fantasy” – is a 14-part work in which lions, hens, wild asses, tortoises, an elephant, kangaroos, fish in an aquarium, donkeys (or, as he puts it ‘personages with long ears’), a cuckoo, birds in an aviary, pianists (in a zoo?), fossils and a swan are musically portrayed.
In the fifth movement,The Elephant (marked Allegretto pomposo), Saint-Saëns depicts a cumbersome, yet graceful pachyderm. Along the way he pokes a little fun and ‘borrows’ melodies by Berlioz and Mendelssohn – both of which are almost unrecognisable in Saint-Saëns’ brilliantly humorous scoring for double bass and piano – making it an obvious choice for bassoon quartet!