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8 Animal-themed pieces of Classical Music

The Carnival of the Animals
The Carnival of the Animals

Composers have written many works inspired by the natural world. Animals, with their varying sizes, shapes and personalities have often provided the most fertile inspiration of all. Here are eight of our favourite classical works inspired by creatures on land, sea and air.

Saint-Saëns: The Carnival of the Animals

No list, of course, would be complete without the most famous of these works, Saint-Saëns' celebrated Carnival of the Animals written by the composer in 1886. The work consists of fourteen movements, each of which contains a depiction of a different animal or group of animals, except for the last, which acts as a finale (though a donkey also features heavily there too). Highlights of this menagerie of movements include the noble fanfares of Royal March of the Lion; the incessant clucking of Hens and Roosters; the hilarious and heavy double bass solo depicting The Elephant; a silky and sparkling Aquarium’ full of fish; the bony sound of the xylophone used to evoke Fossils; and, gracefully depicted by a solo cello, The Swan. Presumably in a joke against himself and others, one of the movements also depicts that commonest of musicianly breeds, ‘Pianists.’

Rameau: La Poule (The Hen)

Some 150 years before Saint-Saëns' depiction of 'Hens and Roosters' in 'Carnival of the Animals,' another French composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, wrote this marvellous depiction of The Hen for harpsichord. With its incessant pecking repeated notes and sudden clucking arpeggiated interjections, it is a witty and well-realised depiction of the common farmyard bird.

Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov: The Flight of the Bumble Bee

The Flight of the Bumble Bee was originally an interlude from the composer’s opera ‘The Tale of Tsar Sultan,’ but is now commonly played as a bravura solo piece. It contains a blaze of fast music-moving chromatic scales, providing a masterly depiction of the chaotic flight of the beloved insect.

Tchaikovsky Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky’s ballet 'Swan Lake' (1875–76) tells the story of the relationship between the young Prince Siegfried, and Odette, a swan who transforms into a beautiful girl. It contains some of the most celebrated ballet music that Tchaikovsky wrote, including the elegant Swan Lake Waltz; the enigmatic Dance of the Little Swans and the overwhelming pathos of the Swan Theme.

Schubert Der Schmetterling (The Butterfly)

Schubert wrote the lovely song Der Schmetterling in 1815. The simple vocal line evokes the butterfly with the words which begin ‘How can I not Dance/It’s no trouble/And lovely colours here/Shimmering in the green.’ It is left to the piano to paint the picture of the creature itself, an elegant introduction and interlude evoking its delicate beauty, the bustling semiquaver accompaniment the beating of the wings.

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

Probably the most familiar work by Prokofiev, 'Peter and the Wolf' (1936), is a musical fairy tale for children. In it a narrator tells the story of an encounter between a young boy, Peter and a ferocious wolf. It also features a number of other animals, each of which has its own theme, including an undefined bird, a duck, a cat and, of course, the wolf itself. Amongst the most celebrated of all is the happy-go-lucky theme of Peter himself, which is heard throughout the work:

Mussorgsky: Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens; The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga)

These two movements are from Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ originally written for piano but famously orchestrated by Ravel (and later by others). Despite the title, ‘The Hut on Hen's Legs (Baba Yaga),’ the ninth movement of the suite is not exactly a depiction of the animal itself, instead being an evocation of a picture of a clock in the form of Baba Yaga's hut on hen's legs. It is a violent and exciting whirlwind chase, evoking perhaps the relentless passage of time. The same cannot be said of Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens, a brilliantly witty depiction of young birds, more probably not quite hatched rather than unhatched, otherwise how could they be capable of such restless movement:

Bizet: Les Dragons d'Alcala

Though not strictly speaking a depiction of the mythical beast, Bizet’s Les Dragons d’Alcala from Carmen evokes the dragon to describe a group of brave soldiers. The main tune, which features the bassoon, has a noble and heroic quality, emphasised by the sturdy and insistent chords that form the accompaniment. Used as an interlude in his opera, the music also features in his Carmen Suite No.1.

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