“The aquarium, the myriad little reflections which vibrate, the scarlet banners which glint and float among the more fluid, more magical sonorities; the flight and flashing of the aviary; the swan, which crowns this course to the heart of nature.” A lyrical description of a trip to the zoo or a zoological description of music? It comes from a short New York Times article from June of 1922 reporting on the posthumous Paris premiere of the Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns. The irony of this account, one of the first discussions of this “zoological fantasy” to appear in English, is that it was written second-hand by someone who had not yet heard the music in question.
Such a report was perhaps only possible because musical methods for depicting animals in concert have a long history. Medieval chants and Renaissance madrigals referred to the calls of the cuckoo in word and melody. Baroque composers made liberal use of animal impersonations, often dramatically countering our expectations for instrumental techniques. Italian violinist Carlo Farina, in his 1627 Capriccio stravagante, asked his band of strings to interrupt rounds of festive choruses to expressively slip and slide around their fiddles. This dueling-cat passage is striking not just for how different it sounds from the surrounding music, but for its literalism and total lack of a tonal filter. Likewise, in his 1669 Sonata representativa, Heinrich Biber had the violinist choke the instrument’s sound, producing a burst of clashing overtones to evoke the guttural croaking of a frog. These composers are not just going for giggles; they also show the experimental potential afforded by the animal imitation genre. In the words of zoömusicologist and composer Emily Doolittle, “The excuse of imitating animal sounds in part seemed to be a way of allowing normally unacceptable, noisy sounds a brief appearance in music.”
Animal-affiliated works of the Classical and Romantic eras involved a more symbolic relationship between musical sounds and the image of the creature in question. Some of Joseph Haydn’s quartets were assigned nature-related subtitles by later players and composers. The so-called “Bird” quartet (Op. 33, No. 3) got its label on account of the chirping grace-notes of its principal gesture. But the “Lark” quartet (Op. 64, No. 5) is named for a less concrete, soaring quality belonging to the main melody. Here, the music inspires a sense of shape or character which can in turn be matched to associations with a particular species.
Connecting to an external concept of size, motion, or disposition is the tactic which Saint-Saëns mostly used when composing his Carnival of the Animals in 1886. There are hints of literal impersonation: the low, chromatic piano growls of the lion; the squeaky braying of the donkey; the cluck and calls of the rooster and the cuckoo; and the brittle, percussive writing in “Fossils” which captures the imagined crunch of ancient, boney creatures rising from an inanimate state to dance a jig. But most of the animals are imitated by abstraction. In “The Swan,” the cello and piano together sound a watery elegance and grace. The “Aquarium” shimmers with light which plays around undersea creatures, expressing the mysterious character of underwater life and not the splash or swish of water we would hear were we to spend time with our ears trained on a fish tank. A kangaroo hops across the open Australian plains and it is the springing buoyancy of this motion that Saint-Saëns reproduces with leaping, staccato piano arpeggios rather than the coughs, cries, or light-footed landing patter we could hear from the actual animal. In creating these miniatures, the composer swings out to the way his image of a particular creature makes him feel, and then back to music to express that feeling.
In the 20th century, recording technology helped to drive a return to closer depictions of animal sound in music. Ottorino Respighi boldly called for a gramophone record of a nightingale to play in the middle of his 1924 orchestral tone poem The Pines of Rome. Even music which did not recruit audio samples of animals could involve more precise strategies of representation. In his 1971 seascape for piano trio Vox Balaenae, the late American composer George Crumb took advantage of advances in extended instrumental technique to depict various sea creatures, using animal impersonation as a starting point for experimentation in a manner akin to Farina and Biber. The flutist, whose instrument is electrified, combines a breathy instrumental tone with their singing voice, an effect which can sound remarkably like the whale recordings Crumb was inspired by and has an extraordinary, haunting beauty.
Many living composers, like Doolittle, advocate for writing music which even more actively integrates the voices of animals into the creation of concert music. Laurie Anderson, the violinist, artist, and composer, gave a 2016 tour of performances of low-frequency music aimed at dogs, fully expecting their responsive barks and calls to form a part of the musical texture. And recently, the cellist and composer David Teie wrote short voice and cello duos based on tamarin monkey calls which could elicit predictable, intended emotional responses in a primate audience of 14. Suffice to say, animal-inspired music remains a vibrant field for artistic exploration.
Can human listeners recognize the creatures which appear in more abstractly rendered depictions of animals, like those in 19th-century art music? In a 1999 study, Randall Moore and colleagues asked hundreds of young school children from the United States, Spain, Korea, Japan, and England to match eight pictures of animals to corresponding segments of Saint-Saëns’s piece. The students tended to score about 40 percent, though they performed quite a bit better on certain targets, like the swan and lion. Unsurprisingly, their performance improved significantly when they received some instruction and training on the composer’s intended matches. So, seeing the target creature listed on a concert program is probably helpful in experiencing this zoological fantasy as a true menagerie. But these pieces with animal representations which are less literal have the advantage of leaving a certain amount of interpretive freedom to listeners. Associative cross-mappings are quite fun and potentially meaningful—who wouldn’t occasionally want to hear a cat in an elephant or a kangaroo splashing about in an aquarium?
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center performs Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals and other animal-inspired works on Sunday, May 15, and Tuesday, May 17, 2022. For more information, visit chambermusicsociety.org.
Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.