This week, the New York Philharmonic mounts Leos Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen in an anticipated semi-staged production at Avery Fisher Hall. The opera, which gives a musical life to a serialized comic strip, is one of many serious works of music that also embraces talking animals, sprung out of what seems to be child’s fascination. With no offense to Old Farmer MacDonald, here are our top five works with animals in starring roles.
1. It’s ironic that Camille Saint-Saëns’ most beloved work, Carnival of the Animals, is one of the few he refused to have performed publicly until after his death. After he died in 1921, this “Grand Zoological Study” won fans among children and their parents. It’s playful at times (Saint Saëns slows a can-can melody down to a crawl to portray a turtle) and irreverent and self-mocking at others.
2. When the Moscow Children’s Theatre commissioned Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 to create a childrens' symphony that would inspire kids to take up musical instruments, he wrote both the score and story Peter and the Wolf. It taught his young audience about the instruments by giving different members of the orchestra an animal character: the flute played a bird, an oboe played a duck, the clarinet the cat, French horns were the wolf. Peter himself is characterized by a string quartet. Disney made Prokofiev’s musical story understandable to American children with a 1946 cartoon set to Prokofiev’s score and Sterling Holloway’s narration.
3. Maurice Ravel, who famously translated fairytales into music in his Mother Goose Suite, also composed for the four-legged and winged sets. Using a text from the French poet Colette, Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les sortileges has furniture that comes to life and animals who develop voices so they can scold a naughty child. A squirrel, a one-time prisoner of the child, unites the other animals, which includes two cats, a frog and a dragonfly, in a tirade against their tormentor.
4. Ottorino Respighi contributed to a vast library of avian music when he wrote his suite for orchestra, Gli Uccelli, or The Birds. In it, he takes four examples of 17th and 18th century music based on birdsong and adapts them to four foul-themed movements, each describing a different species: the dove serenades, a hen scurries and answers a rooster crow, the nightingale is voiced by flutes and the cuckoo’s two-note call repeats frequently.
5. Gustav Mahler explored the meaning of the universe with most of his music; in the song “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (translated as Praise from an Advanced Intellect) from his cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn, his queries aren’t quite as lofty. The text describes a donkey who has taken up the task of judging whether a cuckoo or nightingale sings more beautifully. Initially, Mahler intended to title the song “Praise from a Critic,” a moniker that wouldn’t have won him additional friends among journalists.