Camille Saint-Saëns and the animals

We English who love to be merry can
Appreciate comic verse, even American.
And to admit this is not rash:
I love the poems of Ogden Nash.
Of poor Camille Saint-Saëns he wrote
In a poem of such great note
It’s used when the music’s in concert —
So good even the conductor wants it!
Though not a judge upon his bench
I’m dismayed when folk can’t speak French.

I share with that poor chap Camille,
Whose surname always made him feel
Americans knew not his fame
Around the world because his name
Was unpronounceable to them
(So he used a nick-name pro tem),
A modicum of his disgust
Which you will also share, I trust.

As his moustache each day he curled,
He travelled widely round the world:
But that was not his only change
From music, for despite his range
He found the wide world so exciting
That he began his travel writing!
And when he lost to Vincent d’Indy
Found travelling abroad was handy.

For Saint-Saëns did a concert tour
To Germany, but sales were poor
Of tickets, and the concert halls
Cried not so much “Encore!” as “B***s!”
Reception could not have been ruder:
Die Deutsche fand ihm da kein Bruder.
So he to Austria withdrew
To a small village where, he knew,
He could stay almost out of sight
And, settled there, began to write.

He wrote and, progress never slow,
Le carnaval des animaux
Emerged, as into it he poured
His energy, so it was scored
Not just, let’s say, for string quintet
(Too modest) but for clarinet
As well, and piccolo, and flute!
And, if you think that they’re too cute,
Please note how harmonies were padded
When to the ensemble he added
Two pianos (not just the one)
And then he really had some fun...

He felt some beasts would like percussion,
And so without any discussion
With friends, or agents (they’d no phone
Back then), he added ... xylophone!
Instinctively he understood
How lots of little strips of wood
All in a row, and tuned to notes,
Could evoke memories of goats
Or cows, on hills in Switzerland,
And all the animals to hand
In his imaginary parade ...
And what an ensemble this made!

So far, this quite eccentric band
For which his novel score was planned
Was not quite instrumental heaven;
Count the players: they’re eleven!
Also, for Saint-Saëns was no fool,
They’d play this piece in music school
If every instrument he scored
Was standard, critics would be bored.

So he decided he must add
A novelty; some called him mad
When later, when this work was played,
A fine je-ne-sais-quoi it made.
To audiences’ ears a tonic, a
Strange device, the glass harmonica,
Though (and this is a shame, I feel)
They often use a glockenspiel.

He might have known they’d use this fix,
For it was 1886;
And so it had its premier outing
On March the 9th, with all the shouting
Heard by just a private crowd
With no general public allowed,
And also with, playing the ’cello,
A chap called Charles Lebouc (fine fellow).

For those in Paris who were fans
Had heard from him about his plans,
And Carnaval led him to shirk
His serious symphonic work;
But as he told them, every one,
“C’est si amusant!” (“It’s such fun!”)
And, truth to tell, no-one would shelve
This piece for players numbered twelve.

Our hero also wrote that year
Symphony Number 3. I fear
That its dedicatee, his friend
Franz Liszt, died before that year’s end.

But that year too, you see, was when
V. D’Indy and his merry men
(One gathers, in a fit of pique)
From the Société Nationale de Musique
In short, had poor Camille ejected,
A nasty moment that reflected
The war the d’Indy-Franck gang waged
In favour of Wagner (fully staged
As in Bayreuth we must suppose)
While Saint-Saëns purely French style chose.

Just then, our hero’s rule of thumb
Was “stay near home” because his Mum
Was poorly, so he stayed near home,
Not travelling, even to Rome.

But two years later, poor Mama,
She died, so her son travelled far,
Away from France — not “with the fairies”,
But on a ship to the Canaries;
Just to be left in peace, I guess,
And leave behind the d’Indy mess,
He took an alias, nom de plume,
Which gave him space — a bit of room.

We must suppose it worked because
Nobody there knew who he was!
They knew he was from Paris, France,
But he led them a merry dance.
He told them “Sannois” was his name,
Of which they’d never heard. No shame,
For this was just a place north-west
Of Paris: small suburb at best.
And after that — his sails unfurled,
As ’twere — he travelled round the world!

© Ian P. Hudson
Headley, Hampshire