La carnaval des animaux, R. 125, VII: L’aquarium

The French romantic composer, pianist, organist and conductor Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) wrote Le Carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) while in a small Austrian village in 1886.

The piece has 14 movements, each representing a different animal or animals. The seventh movement, “L’aquarium,” has a mystical, magical sound about it, and listening to it, I can imagine peering through glass into a giant aquarium and watching the various sea creatures passing by. Another movement from the piece, “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”) is likely more recognizable to many people.

The American poet Ogden Nash wrote a humorous narrative to accompany the music in 1949. The verses were recited on a subsequent recording by American actor, singer, playwright, director and composer Noël Coward.

I’ve had a video performance of the piece bookmarked for a while. Interestingly, it is a transcription for harp, and the uniqueness of the instrument had some appeal. But as I checked out other videos of the piece today, I found a version for two pianos and orchestra that I prefer. I find the broader staging stimulates the imagination more, with the various sounds representing the diversity of inhabitants of the aquarium — kind of like in our world.

French sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque appear in this version; I previously shared a video of them performing a piece by American composer Philip Glass, Les Enfants Terribles.

While I like the music and the imagery in today’s selection, I am a bit conflicted; I am not a fan of aquariums and zoos. I have always felt the unnatural captivity inherent in these institutions troubling.

Nonetheless, an aquarium might be a place for a family or solo visit on Fathers’ Day. And like Mothers’ Day, today can be complicated for some. Whatever your situation as a father, step-father, aspiring father, one who provides a fatherly presence for another, one who has not chosen this path, or grieves the absence of this influence, I hope you are taking time today to be gentle on yourself, and honouring your gifts.

Now you know a little about why this is my Song of the Day for Today, on Classical Sunday. Thanks for joining me here, and please enjoy.

Here’s the video from the official Deutsche Grammophon YouTube channel, with British conductor Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker at Waldbühne Concert with the Labèque sisters at an outdoor classical music festival in 2005.

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