A long time ago, when I was very young and the world seemed a different place, my parents used to occasionally give me a small chocolate mouse. It was intended as a special treat so it didn’t happen very often. Each mouse had two pink eyes made of candy, a brown chocolate body and a long brown tail. The problem was that because I was a sensitive child I couldn’t easily bring myself to eat them, especially the heads. Fortunately, in later life I overcame these childlike concerns and if anyone offers me a chocolate mouse these days, I can eat it without hesitation. Unfortunately, people rarely do.
So it was with some delight that wandering in the supermarket last week, I found a box not of chocolate mice, but of animal-shaped biscuits. They are called, appropriately Two by Two and come from Ashbourne, a small market town in England’s Derbyshire Dales. You may recall the children’s song The Animals Came in Two by Two which is based on the melody of the other popular American folk song When Johnny Comes Marching Home. If you are feeling frivolous, you can even buy the biscuits packed in a colourful tin that looks like a minuscule ark. The biscuits are made in the shape of monkeys, lions, kangaroos and elephants. And of course they come in pairs. Some of the packs even have an animal nursery rhyme or fable printed on the side. It is reassuring to know that in our troubled world, you can still buy animal-shaped biscuits. It just goes to show that things can’t be all that bad.
Many composers have written music about animals but I suppose the one by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns must be the most well-known. This curious yet entertaining work is quite different in style from his huge output of symphonies, concertos, operas and chamber music.
Following a less than triumphant concert tour of Germany in 1886, Saint-Saëns meekly withdrew to a small Austrian village where as a form of light relief, he composed his The Carnival of the Animals. This is a work for small ensemble with fourteen short movements, each of which depicts an animal or a group of animals. It must have given Saint-Saëns a great deal of amusement composing the music and he admitted that he wrote the piece just for the fun of it. The second movement, Hens and Roosters is a parody on a piece by Rameau; and Pianists (who Saint-Saëns obviously considers as animals) are heard painfully lumbering up and down scales. In Tortoises, the strings play an extremely slow and laboured version of the Can-can from Offenbach’s operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. The thirteenth movement, The Swan is the famous cello solo known to generations of cello students. In this lively performance by talented young musicians from Zagreb I noticed that the musicians all seem to be playing from photocopies, so perhaps times are tough in Croatia. They probably don’t have animal biscuits either, let alone chocolate mice.
This is one of Prokofiev’s best-known works, especially among school children. It was written in 1936 as a commission from the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow and Prokofiev managed to write both the words and music in just four days. You probably know the story. It concerns a bird, a duck, a cat, some hunters, a cantankerous and over-cautious grandfather and of course, Peter and the dreaded wolf. It’s written for narrator and orchestra and each character is represented by different instruments. There are countless recordings of the work, dating back to the 1940s. Many actors have recorded the work, including Peter Ustinov, Patrick Stewart (of Star Trek fame), Basil Rathbone, Sir Ralph Richardson, Boris Karloff, and Sean Connery to name but six. Even Dame Edna Everage has had a go at it.
Unusually, in this video, the conductor and the narrator are the same person. Bramwell Tovey is a British composer and conductor who has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra since September 2000. He does a pretty decent job as narrator and the musicians in the orchestra seem to enjoy themselves. It’s all good fun for children, even though one of orchestral players bears a slightly unsettling resemblance to the actor Anthony Hopkins, who played the role of the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.
After all that excitement with the wolf, I think I’ll go and make a cappuccino and have an animal biscuit. Yes, I admit that I succumbed to temptation and bought a pack.