Posted in Music

Animal Crackers

Animals pop up with surprising frequency in music. I’m not talking about cameos and guest appearances like the sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote, which courtesy of the brass section bah delightfully. My favorites are actually full-length portraits of the fur and feather crowd that never fail to please.

Yesterday morning I enjoyed my breakfast to the hee-haw strains of “On the Trail” from Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and I’d forgotten how accurate it is in describing the stubborn donkeys who finally get it in gear for tenderfoots (tenderfeets?) in the saddle. Grofe first made his name as an arranger, most prominently for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when the piece was premiered by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and his talent is very apparent here. The donkeys’ clip-clops and the great wide-open-spaces feel of “On the Trail” make for delightful listening:

Probably the most popular animals are those in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Even people who hate classical music can usually identify the cat’s Sneaky Pete prowl, if not the duck’s plaintive theme. Although the composer wrote this for children, even adults tend to flinch when they hear the four French horns portraying the wolf (I must say, though, that as a former bassoonist, the grandfather’s harrumphs are just as much fun as the depictions of the other characters). Director Suzie Templeton’s animated Peter and the Wolf, which won an Oscar several years ago, is an excellent version, though it makes me sad that the poor duck isn’t promised her return as Prokofiev intended. But here are Peter, the bird, duck and cat in happier times:

Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, a very clever theme and variations, is another crowd-pleaser. Featuring a piano duo and full orchestra, the piece is replete with lions (whose theme, fittingly enough, was used a number of years ago in a Dreyfus Fund commercial), hens, kangaroos, tortoises, elephants, donkeys and a swan of renown. The “Fossils” movement is the funniest—those dry bones are referred to by the composer with a quote from his own Danse Macabre played on the xylophone and he puns by including several bars from Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa,” a musical fossil in Saint-Saens’s eyes. Despite all this, my favorite section describes the mystical-sounding fish swimming in an  aquarium:

Mother Goose, initially a ballet and later a suite by Ravel, features a section that I think is the wittiest and one of the most charming pieces of music ever composed. “The Conversation of Beauty and the Beast” first presents Beauty, but not in the form you’d expect. In most cases a flute will depict a feminine character, but Ravel, that master orchestrator, instead introduces Beauty with an infinitely graceful clarinet solo. After Beauty speaks, here comes the Beast, attempting to be courtly, but remaining, well–a beast. A contrabassoon does the honors, and its bumbling never fails to make me smile. After the initial exchange of views and evidently some doubt on Beauty’s part, the two lines come together as they continue their bumpy conversation. Starting at :50, you can hear their dialogue:

Feel free to chime in by sharing your favorites.

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