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The Elephant

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The bassists' 'national anthem' arranged for quartet, also playable by massed basses. Bass 4 has much of the tune, accompanied by the other three basses, and it has been transposed into D major for ease of performance. This transcription was made for Bass-Fest '98, has now been performed around the world, and allows players of all abilities to perform in one magical work. Player and audience friendly. Bass 1 will need some facility in thumb position, and there is some simple and effective harmonic passages, but nothing too taxing. Have fun!

In 1855 Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) published 'Harmonie et Melodie', a collection of critical writings which contained his own 'Gallic scepticism' and academic attitude to the music and cult-like status of Wagner and Bayreuth. The book and its reviews hardly went unnoticed in Germany, and in January 1886, during Saint-Saens' German tour as composer and pianist, he met a degree of hostility from the press and public alike. His biographer, Bonnerot, noted that 'it was as much to forget this affront as to rest from the tour' that in February Saint-Saens visited a small town in Austria to recuperate.

He had taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris from 1861-65 and always intended to write a work for his pupils there, but the lack of time had always prevented him from doing so. Now he had the time and 'The Carnival of the Animals' was written as a method of relaxation. Subtitled 'Grande Fantasie Zoologique', it has fourteen movements, is scored for two pianos and chamber ensemble, and is a rare work of musical humour which never fails to thrill its audience, young or old. The first performance was on 9 March 1886 at the annual Shrove Tuesday concert organised by cellist, Charles Joseph Lebouc, Emile de Bailly was the double bassist, and the pianists were Louis Diemer and the composer himself. A few days later it was played at the Lentern concert of 'La Trompette', a select Parisian chamber music society, but was then withdrawn for over thirty years.

Saint-Saens' misgivings about the popularity of 'The Carnival of the Animals' overshadowing his many other great achievements was entirely accurate, and it was not released for publication until after his death in 1921. His will contained the clause: 'I expressly forbid the publication of any unpublished work, except Le Carnaval des Animaux, which may be issued by my usual publishers, M.M. Durand et Cie.'

The complete work was published in 1922, just over thirty-five years after its composition, and 'The Elephant' was 'released' into the musical community. It now exists in a variety of editions (Durand, Henle, Peters, Recital Music), was used as background music for a series of TV advertisements for a well known UK superstore, and inspired the ever-popular 'The Elephant's Gavotte' by New York bassist, David Walter.
'The Elephant' is the fifth movement of 'The Carnival of the Animals', the double bass is accompanied by Piano 2, and, although only 52 bars long and lasting a little over a minute, it has really captured the imagination of the concert-going public. In E flat major and in 3/8 time, it remains in the lower orchestral register for much of the time and is a musical joke 'par excellence'. Saint-Saens has created a work of great invention and imagination, whether we like it or not, and he has imbued the work with great skill and humour which is typical of the suite as a whole.

The Johann Strauss dynasty of Vienna were at the very height of their waltz-fame towards the end of the 19th-century and Saint-Saens cleverly uses the dance-form to musically describe his animal. The piece begins in a grand and heroic style with a strong four-bar chordal introduction, although bars two and four lack a downbeat which is one thing a waltz needs above all things, and Saint-Saens 'wrong-foots' the beast immediately with it's upbeat (pick-up) theme but beginning on the first beat of the bar. He cleverly demonstrates that the elephant has problems with the dance, as if it is unable to keep in step. The accompaniment, apart from cadences, retains its free first-beat in each bar from the piano which adds a rather ungainly and lopsided effect to the proceedings.

At bar 24 an extract from Berlioz's 'Danse des Sylphes' (The Damnation of Faust) is introduced, transposed a semitone higher four bars later, and is quickly followed by a passage from the Scherzo of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer's Night Dream. Both themes are originally for higher-pitched instruments and are here adapted to a more elephantine style, but still allowing the elephant its one opportunity to dance elegantly. Not for long, however, and as the accompaniment gets higher the bass gets lower and landing on a four-bar pedal point ( B natural changing enharmonically to C flat and then sliding down to B flat), with its wonderfully inventive and chromatic accompaniment, takes the bass back into its original theme but now with a harp-like accompaniment. Little by little the two instruments come together until they eventually play in octave unison, modulating into A flat major, before allowing the bass a two-bar scalic run from its lowest register to a higher one. allowing it one last opportunity for a brief bass-pirouette, before a two-bar coda confidently states "That's all!" with it's two final chords.

The original manuscript, held in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, shows that bars 21-28 were originally intended to be played one octave lower than the accepted version today, making the inclusion of Berlioz's 'Danse des Sylphes' even more humourous when played in the lowest register. The confusion was begun by the first publication in 1922, transcribed by Lucien Garban and published by Durand et Cie, at the composers wishes. Garban wrote bars 21-28 as the composer intended but then added that the double bass should play these eight bars once octave higher than written, as this edition was 'pour Violoncelle ou Countrebasse et Piano'. He also simplified some of the piano accompaniment, thinning out some of the chords, which have nee reinstated in the Recital Music and Henle editions.

In just 52 bars of music Camille Saint-Saens has created a minor masterpiece. The music is witty and cleverly written to describe the elephant with the introduction of dance music by Berlioz and Mendelssohn adding an extra touch of magic. This is probably the first piece to introduce the double bass to a general audience and the composer imaginatively uses the lower orchestral register to describe the beast. In the intervening century since publication the double bass has seen a revival and renaissance in all aspects of the instrument. The level of playing is probably the highest it has ever been and our role in the 21st-century is to embrace 'The Elephant' - it cannot be unwritten or unpublished - but also demonstrate that the instrument is so much more than simply a musical pachyderm. Can it be a swan? Damned right it can!

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Cat No. RM043
Price £8.50
ComposerCamille Saint-Saëns
EditorDavid Heyes
CategoryDouble Bass Quartet
PublisherRecital Music
Difficulty level4 - 8
ISMN 979-0-57045-043-5
EAN-13 9790570450435
Weight 69 grams
Published 19th July 2009
Availability 8 in stock
See also...
RM019  Canon
RM031  The Elephant & Tortoises (DOUBLE BASS & PIANO)
RM926  Forward March!