PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf / BRITTEN: Young Person's Guide to Orchestra / SAINT-SAENS: Carnival (Ondrej Lenard/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.550335)
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Camille Saint-Saens (1835 - 1921)
Carnaval des animaux / Carnival of the Animals
Sergey Prokofiev (1891 - 1953)
Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67
Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)
The Young Person's Guide tothe Orchestra, Op. 34
(Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell)
The French composer Camille Saint-Sa?½ns was prolific and liveda long time, although by the lime of his death in 1921 music had changed beyond anythinghe could have conceived. He was a gifted pianist and, in common with many other well knownFrench composers, found employment and distinction as organist al one of the principalchurches in Paris. The popular Carnival of the Animals, described as A Zoological Fantasy,was written in 1886, originally for two pianos and a small chamber orchestra, to celebratethat year's carnival. The composer forbade further performances of this occasional music,except for The Swan, which enjoyed immediate and irresistible popularity.
The pianos open the work in a brief introduction that seems tosuggest the roar of the lions, before the Royal March begins, with its suggestions of theexotic in its theme. Hens and Cocks are as true to nature as the composer can make them,followed by Wild Donkeys of unexpected rapidity of motion, in contrast to the lumberingTortoises, who offer a can-can at the slowest possible speed, putting a foot wrong hereand there. The Elephant is naturally represented by the double bass in an episode thatincludes a direct quotation of the highly inappropriate Ballet of the Sylphs by Berlioz.
The pianos alone then imitate the capricious leaps of the Kangaroos, to be followed by anevocation of the Aquarium. People with Long Ears, critics, are portrayed by piercingwhistles and the braying of donkeys, while pianos and clarinet bring in the Cuckoo,followed by the rest of the aviary, with the help of the flute.
Pianists, creatures not usually found in zoos, practise theirscales, heavily accented, and are followed by Fossils, with tunes of undoubted antiquityand interesting activity for the xylophone. The Swan sings its dying song on the cello,reminding us now of the dance devised by Fokin for the great Anna Pavlova. The fantasyends with a summary of much that has gone before.
The Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev wrote his Peter and the Wolf in 1936 to introduce to childrenthe instruments of the orchestra. He had taken his two sons to see performances at theMoscow Children's Music Theatre and this had suggested to him the possibility of acomposition of this kind. The boy Peter, represented by the strings, is playing in themeadow, forbidden territory. A bird, shown by the flute, sings in a tree: a duck, theoboe, swims in the pond, and a cat, the clarinet, comes onto the scene, sending the birdup to a higher branch. Peter's grandfather, the bassoon, warns the boy not to venture out,but meanwhile a wolf, the French horns, comes into the meadow, chases and swallows theduck whole, and lays siege to the cat and the bird, both now up the tree. Peter tells thebird to distract the wolf, while he catches it with a rope. Hunters then approach, theirguns shown by the drums, and help to carry the wolf off to the zoo in a grand procession,with the duck still quacking inside the wolf and grandfather still complaining.
Ten years later, in 1946, the English composer Benjamin Brittenwas asked to write music for an educational film introducing the instruments of theorchestra. For the purpose he chose a theme by the great 17th century English composerHenry Purcell and wrote a set of variations, each of which shows the characteristics of aparticular instrument or group of instruments. The alternative title of the work, Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell, is anexact description. The other title, The Young Person'sGuide to the Orchestra, makes fun of the titles much favoured by writers ofmoral tales in the 19th century, providing "young persons" with advice on how toregulate every aspect of their lives.
The theme, taken from music Purcell wrote for Aphra Behn's playAbdelazar or The Moor's Revenge, is played six times. At firstthe full orchestra plays the theme, followed by the woodwind (flutes, oboes, clarinets andbassoons). The theme is played a third time, this time by the brass (horns, trumpets,trombones and tuba), and then by the strings (violins, violas, cellos, double basses, and,as an extra, by the harp, an instrument not generally included in the string section ofthe orchestra). The percussion (drums, triangle, tambourine and cymbals) does what it canwith the melody before the return of the full orchestra.
The first variation starts with the highest woodwindinstrument, the piccolo, and two flutes, accompanied by the harp and violins. The oboesare given fuller accompaniment, leading to the clarinets demonstrating their agility, andto the deepest instruments of the woodwind section, the bassoons. The string section isallowed four variations, for violins, for violas, for cellos and for double basses. FourFrench horns introduce the brass section, with its second variation for trumpets and itsthird for trombones and bass tuba. The percussion instruments share the next variation.
The kettle-drums (timpani) are joined by the bass drum and cymbals, tambourine andtriangle, side drum and Chinese block, xylophone, castanets and gong, and, finally, thewhip, simulated by hinged slats of wood brought smartly together.
The Young Person's Guide
ends with a fugue, a traditional form of composition in which one part enters afteranother, using the same theme, so that the music grows gradually in size and intensity.
The piccolo starts and the other instruments enter in order - flutes, oboes, clarinets andbassoons, lead to violins, violas, cellos, double basses and harp, and then French horns,trumpets, trombones and tuba, followed by the percussion. At the most exciting part of thefugue, the brass instruments play again the original theme, leading to a grand conclusion.