"The Swan" from The Carnival of the Animals
solo cello, flute, clarinet, glass harmonica (or glockenspiel), xylophone, two pianos, strings
Composed February 1886 as Le carnaval des animaux.
First performance: March 9, 1886, Paris.
Saint-Saëns was initially a champion of Wagner and his burgeoning influence on the likes of Liszt and Berlioz, whose music he made sure his pupils knew, but he later assumed the stance of a vigilant guardian of French classicism. He was committed to the symphonic tradition, but he detested the Wagnerian strain in French music as heard in the symphonies and tone poems of César Franck and Vincent d’Indy—a split that eventually led to his resignation from the Societé Nationale de Musique. However, while he was a curmudgeon as a critic, Saint-Saëns was not always so serious as a composer. The Carnival of the Animals is by turns pompous (lions), prancing (kangaroos), and ponderous (the elephant) and a thoroughly frivolous pastiche of musical quotes and allusions. The novelty of its orchestration—which includes a glass harmonica, xylophone, and two pianos, along with a few winds and strings—has drawn the attention of film and TV directors and parts of the work (especially “The Swan”) appear in countless soundtracks, most recently “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (2017). This movement for solo cello and piano was also adapted as a ballet—The Dying Swan, after Tennyson—by Michel Fokine at the request of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. While this piece does not feature much of the harmonic complexity Saint-Saëns gleaned from Wagner, it does parody some of his operatic peers who were popular on Parisian stages. Across its fourteen movements, we often hear send-ups of the theatrical spectacles and lush (or even saccharine) romanticism of Rossini and Meyerbeer. It is entirely possible that in its original context, we are not meant to hear “The Swan” as particularly poignant, but rather as a facsimile of a “touching” or “heartfelt” aria.
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