How a composer’s joke melodies became his unexpected legacy

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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now “The Carnival of Animals” and a famous composer who felt he was celebrated for the wrong thing.

Camille Saint-Saëns would have celebrated his 181st birthday this past weekend.

Once again, pianist Rob Kapilow joins Jeffrey Brown to explore what makes great music.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rob Kapilow, welcome.

ROB KAPILOW, Composer: Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, today, we’re marking the birthday of Camille Saint-Saëns. This is a story of a great composer who didn’t quite get the legacy that he wanted.

ROB KAPILOW: During his lifetime, I mean, he was a famous composer, one of the most famous composers in the world, writing serious operas, serious symphonies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little bit about him, for those who don’t know.

ROB KAPILOW: Well, you know, he was also one of the world’s greatest musical prodigies. In fact, many people think he was even more of a prodigy than Mozart or Mendelssohn.

He started piano at two-and-a-half. He wrote his first piece at four-and-a-half, made a public debut at 10, in which not only did he play two concertos and write his own cadenza, but, for an encore, he offered to play any Beethoven sonata from memory that the audience wanted. That’s 32 sonatas at the age of 10, one of the great musical proteges, utterly famous, yet then, for a joke, he writes this piece that literally became his legacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, “Carnival of the Animals,” written for a friend, becomes this famous piece. Tell us about it.

ROB KAPILOW: Yes, it was a little party piece, and, in it, he took 14 animals in this grand zoological fantasy, is what he called it.

And each movement turns an animal somehow into music. And the simplest way is to take the sound of the actual animal, and, in the first movement, that’s what happens. A lion’s roar is turned into music.

But, sometimes, for example, in “Hemiones,” which is a wild Tibetan donkey famous for running at blinding speed up and down rough mountains, he turns the idea of the animal into music, and turns that into two pianists running up and down the keyboard at blinding speed in unison.

JEFFREY BROWN: He also has this movement called “The Pianists.”

ROB KAPILOW: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s sort of a joke, pianist as an animal.

ROB KAPILOW: Yes. It’s just a joke. I mean, it’s like based on the scale. It’s based on these ridiculous scales that pianists do. Maybe that’s the animal that annoys the neighbors when the pianists are actually playing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pianists as animals in a sense.

ROB KAPILOW: Pianists as animals. Anybody can be a joke. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: One movement, “The Swan,” next-to-last movement, did become hugely — maybe the most famous part.

ROB KAPILOW: It became the most famous piece he ever wrote.

And it’s interesting. It’s the only movement that he actually allowed to be published during his lifetime.

JEFFREY BROWN: I visited with Yo-Yo Ma last year for a piece for the “NewsHour,” and he played “The Swan” for us. So, what makes “The Swan” work so well?

ROB KAPILOW: Well, I think writing the piece so quickly gave him access to one of the most beautiful, simple melodies he ever wrote.

I mean, it starts off with nothing but the two pianos being the rippling waters, and a little crest of a wave. Then everything focuses on the cello. There were only three ideas. A swan’s neck dips, the same idea lower. Then the swan’s neck rises gracefully on a long note, and then a simple scale. But one note makes it great.

We stretch it out. Instead of this, we get this beautiful high note on the cello. We go on a journey with this, we come back, we repeat the whole thing a second time, and there’s a beautiful epilogue at the end telling us the message.

Then, for the first time, all of a sudden, the rippling waters stop. We know something important is being shared with us now. We journey with the piece’s three ideas, and we finish with a simple scale stretched out like this.

The rippling waters stop. We have been wanting to resolve not up here, but down here. And for the first time, we resolve the piece on a single cello note without accompaniment.

The accompaniment has always been in the middle register, not noticeable at all. Now, after this resolution of the cello, suddenly, from the heavens, up here, in a brand-new register, the pianos take over, those rippling waters become the topic. And we finish with one last wave.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, “The Swan” is the only part that he did allow to be published, but the rest of it, he didn’t want…

ROB KAPILOW: The rest of it is banished.

JEFFREY BROWN: He wanted it to go away?

ROB KAPILOW: He wanted it to go away. He said it could be published after he died.

But he was really worried. Legacy was an important issue. And he was a serious French composer. And that wasn’t what he wanted to be known for. But, somehow, what snuck into this piece was the most exquisite, pure, simple, beautiful melody that he ever wrote, “The Swan.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Rob Kapilow, thank you very much.

ROB KAPILOW: Thanks so much, Jeff.

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