Camille Saint Saens & “The Carnival Of The Animals”

Who was Camille Saint Saens?

Camille Saint Saens was a French composer born in 1835. He was considered a child prodigy, just like Mozart was. His family realized at the young age of 3, that he had perfect pitch and could easily pick out melodies and play them on the piano.  At the age of 7, Saint Saens started formal piano lessons and by 10, he could play any of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas by memory.  Talk about being a musical genius!

At age 13, Saint Saens left home to study at the Paris Conservatory. Here, his talents developed and he became a gifted pianist and organist who stunned the world with his inspirational music and performances.  By the time he reached his 30’s, he was one of the most famous living composers - which is unlike some of his counterparts who only became famous centuries after their death!  Over the course of his life, Saint Saens wrote over 300 pieces and was highly praised for his talent and dedication to the Romantic era in music.


“The Carnival of the Animals” 

“The Carnival of the Animals” is one of the most loved pieces that Saint Saens wrote. Both adults and children love the playful and humorous nature of it. In fact, I dare say it is one of the most widely loved pieces ever composed!

Saint Saens wrote the piece in 1868 for a chamber group of 11 instruments: flute/piccolo, two pianos, clarinet, glass harmonica (now we use the glockenspiel), xylophone, two violins, viola, cello and double bass.  Today, it is often performed by a full orchestra.

A real transcription of the original copy of The Aquarium movement from “The Carnival Of The Animals” by Camille Saint-Saens


In the piece, you’ll hear Saint Saens using excerpts from other composers like “The Can Can” (Offenbach) and “Danse macabre” (Berlioz.)  In fact, this piece which was written as a joke for Saint Saens’ friends, wasn’t meant to be performed in public. He was afraid people wouldn’t consider him a serious composer if they heard The Carnival of the Animals, so he was adamant that it not be published until after his death.  He did however, allow for the 13th movement “The Swan” to be published during his life.


Listen to the full version here:


The Movements of “The Carnival of the Animals” 

This piece is just over 20 minutes from start to finish and consists of 14 unique movements:

1. Introduction & Royal March of the Lion
The piano is the instrument that introduces a march theme that very obviously mimics the pride of a lion.

2. Hens & Roosters
In this movement, the string section portrays the hens clucking and a clarinet imitates a rooster crowing.

3. Wild Donkeys (Swift Animals)
Scales ascending and descending quickly by the pianos portray the wild donkeys rushing madly about.

4. Tortoises
Have you heard the “Can Can” played slowly before? Here it is played by the strings and piano portraying the tortoise as a sluggish land animal.

5. The Elephant
No other instrument can describe the heavy and clumsy Elephant like a double bass!

6. Kangaroos
Two pianists portray the jumping and hopping of a Kangaroo scampering on its way.

7. Aquarium
This gorgeous movement performed by the flute, piano and glass harmonica invites listeners into the beautiful and ethereal world of the undersea.

8. Personages with Long Ears

Who are these mysterious long-eared creatures? Why, they are in fact donkeys!  Playing the “hee-haw” are 2 violins.

9. The Cuckoo in the Deep Woods

The pianos play gentle chords as if someone were taking a contemplative walk through the quiet forest.  All of a sudden, the clarinet chimes in with a distinct “cuckoo.”

10. Aviary - The delicate sound of the flute is accompanied by strings and pianos as it flutters about singing the sweet sounds of birds.

11. Pianists - Pianists aren’t animals!  This movement features another one of Saint Saens’ jokes as he makes fun of pianists practicing their scales.  (Remember, Saint Saens was a pianist himself!)

12. Fossils - The xylophone takes the spotlight sounding as if skeletons are playing.  Saint Saens used little snippets of French pieces to announce that the composers of these pieces were “old fashioned” just like fossils.

13. The Swan - Oh the beauty of the swan! The cello beautifully paints a picture of this graceful animal with a very famous melody line.
Finale - All instruments join together for one big hurrah! Little bits of all the movements are featured here as a closing movement.


Watch a Live Performance of "The Carnival of the Animals"

Watch The Abbotsford Youth Orchestra perform "The Carnival of the Animals"! The piece begins at the 48 minute mark, but I encourage you to watch the whole concert!



Free “The Carnival of the Animals” Activity Download

Would you like a free activity on “The Carnival of the Animals” for children ages 4-12? Simply subscribe to my email list and you’ll be able to download this active listening activity right away. Once you’re a subscriber, you’ll be the first to receive some more free hands-on resources from me over the coming months. Happy listening!




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