Carnival of the Animals is a series of fourteen short musical pieces written in 1886 by French composer, Camille Saint-Saëns for small orchestra with two pianos. Each short piece portrays a different animal or group of animals, and, as a result, the music is often performed today by major symphony orchestras for Children’s concerts, and appropriately so. The music is enchanting for both adults and children, but its context and brevity make it ideal for younger audience members.
In 1949, U. S. Poet Ogden Nash wrote the first series of poems designed to accompany Saint-Saëns’ delightful music. They are short poems—the longest are twelve lines—that describe the animal that the music is depicting. Since the advent of Nash’s poems, it has become tradition for the music to be accompanied by poetry, if not Nash’s, then someone else’s, and plenty of poets have put pen to paper for this music: Jack Prelutsky, Peter Shickele, John Lithgow and “Weird Al” Yankovic, to name a few.
Recently published by In The Deep Press, in Nanaimo B. C., is a new collection of poetry based on Saint-Saëns’ music, and it, too, is called Carnival of the Animals. Nanaimo’s own A. J. Mittendorf has produced a new volume illustrated by Canadian artist, Kendal Lipsett. Fifteen poems, including an introduction and conclusion, are presented with charming drawings. There are an additional two poems that combine the ideas of two pairs of Saint-Saëns’ tunes, because these were originally designed to be played one after the other, without pause. Mittendorf’s additional poems accommodate that musical need.
So, what sets Mittendorf’s poetry apart from the poetry of all the others that are written for this music? The other poets have all written descriptive, or “lyrical” poetry. They talk about the animal and often make humourous metaphors or comparisons. While they are consistently well written, they are not always appropriate accompaniments. The problem with such is that the value of the poetry is lost because the children can’t easily appreciate that type of poetry; all they are able to appreciate about it where Carnival of the Animals is concerned is that the poetry is brief, otherwise, they’d all be lost to the chaos of kiddie concert ennui.
Mittendorf’s poems, on the other hand, are fables, each telling a story with talking animals who come to life through situations that children can appreciate and give life lessons that adults can learn from. The dialogue is poetically expressed, but entirely believable, and the language is modern and relevant. More importantly, Mittendorf has ensured that there is enough depth and insight to the writing that mature readers and fans of Saint-Saëns’ will appreciate the allusions that Mittendorf includes. For example, while two of the young characters are named Jack and Jill, an allusion to the famous nursery rhyme, other characters are named for famous musical directors, such as the elephant, Tuskanini, who is named after Arturo Toscanini. So there’s a lot in the mix for every reader. In fact, while the cover may make the book look like a children’s book, it is really not a children’s book at all; consider it more of a source of family entertainment.
Mittendorf is also a skilled musician and musical arranger. He has arranged three of Saint-Saëns’ pieces for his own instrument—the double bass—and piano so that he can play the music and then perform the poems that he has written. And in this area, Mittendorf adds one more element to the mix for the performances of these Carnival of the Animals poems: He can act. Not only is he a writer and an accomplished musician, but he also has some skill as an on-stage character-actor who can use his voice to characterize his animals in a way that gives them dimension: a cheetah with a British accent, an elephant who “shpeaksh” like Sean Connery, a swan that honks a bit like Pat Butram. These poems are, in every way, performance pieces. So, not only are young audiences getting stories in verse that are fun to listen to (or just read), but they also get to see a performance of these pieces with captivating dramatization.
Along with this article you can see the cover of the book and three of the illustrations from the inside. Mittendorf’s Carnival of the Animals is available through Amazon and Cole’s. It retails for $19.95, but don’t look for it in the children’s section; find it, instead, among the poetry.
Listen to A. J. Mittendorf recite one or more of his poems. One video will lead you to two other.