There are fourteen movements, each representing a different animal or animals:
I "Introduction et Marche royale du lion" (Introduction and Royal March of the Lion) Edit
Strings and two pianos: the introduction begins with the pianos playing a bold tremolo, under which the strings enter with a stately theme. The pianos play a pair of scales going in opposite directions to conclude the first part of the movement. The pianos then introduce a march theme that they carry through most of the rest of the introduction. The strings provide the melody, with the pianos occasionally taking low runs of octaves which suggest the roar of a lion. The two groups of instruments switch places, with the pianos playing a higher, softer version of the melody. The movement ends with a fortissimo note from all the instruments used in this movement.
II "Poules et coqs" (Hens and Roosters) Edit
Strings with our cello and double bass, two pianos, with clarinet: this movement is centered around a pecking theme played in the pianos and strings, which is quite reminiscent of chickens pecking at grain. The clarinet plays a big solo above the strings. The piano plays a very fast theme based on the crowing of a rooster's Cock-a-Doodle-Doo.
III "Animaux véloces" (Swift Animals) Edit
Two pianos: the animals depicted here are quite obviously running, an image induced by the constant, feverishly fast up-and-down motion of both pianos playing scales in octaves. These dziggetai, falcons, and cheetahs are known for their great speed.
IV "Tortues" (Tortoises) Edit
Strings and piano: a satirical movement which opens with a piano playing a pulsing triplet figure in the higher register. The strings play a slow rendition of the famous "Galop infernal" (commonly called the Can-can) from Offenbach's operetta Orphée aux enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).
V "L'Éléphant" (The Elephant) Edit
Double bass and piano: this section is marked Allegro pomposo, the perfect caricature for an elephant. The piano plays a waltz-like triplet figure while the bass hums the melody beneath it. Like "Tortues," this is also a musical joke—the thematic material is taken from the Scherzo from Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Berlioz's "Dance of the Sylphs" from The Damnation of Faust. The two themes were both originally written for high, lighter-toned instruments (flute and various other woodwinds, and violin, accordingly); the joke is that Saint-Saëns moves this to the lowest and heaviest-sounding instrument in the orchestra, the double bass.
VI "Kangourous" Edit
Two pianos: the main figure here is a pattern of "hopping" chords (made up of triads in various positions) preceded by grace notes in the right hand. When the chords ascend, they quickly get faster and louder, and when the chords descend, they quickly get slower and softer.
VII "Aquarium" Edit
Violins, viola, cello (string quartet), two pianos, flute, and glass harmonica: this is one of the more musically rich movements. The melody is played by the flute, backed by the strings, and glass harmonica on top of tumultuous, glissando-like runs and arpeggios in pianos. The first piano plays a descending ten-on-one, and eight-on-one ostinato, in the style of the second of Chopin's études, while the second plays a six-on-one. These figures, plus the occasional glissando from the glass harmonica towards the end—often played on celesta or glockenspiel—are evocative of a peaceful, dimly-lit aquarium. According to British music journalist Fritz Spiegel, there is a recording of the movement featuring virtuoso harmonica player Tommy Reilly—apparently, he was hired by mistake instead of a player of the glass harmonica. The recording in question is of the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra on the Naxos label.
VIII "Le Paon" (The Peacock) Edit
All the violins: this is the longest of all the movements. The violins alternate playing high, loud notes and low, buzzing ones (in the manner of a peacock's calling "may-AWE", and a donkey braying). Music critics have speculated that the movement is meant to compare music critics to braying donkeys and calling peafowl.
X "Le Coucou au fond des Bois" (The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods) Edit
Two pianos and clarinet: the pianos play large, soft chords while the clarinet plays a single two-note ostinato; a C and an A♭, mimicking the call of a cuckoo bird. Saint-Saëns states in the original score that the clarinetist should be offstage play a wilder version of the famous "Papageno" from The Magic Flute.
I'm gonna play it with giraffes, Then we will hear The Carnival of the Animals version.
X "Volière" (Aviary) Edit
Strings, pianos, and flute: the high strings take on a background role, providing a buzz in the background that is reminiscent of the background noise of a jungle. The cellos and basses play a pickup cadence to lead into most of the measures. The flute takes the part of the bird, with a thrilling tune that spans much of its range. The pianos provide occasional pings and trills of other birds in the background. The movement ends very quietly after a long ascending chromatic scale from the flute.
XI "Primates" (Primates) Edit
Strings and two pianos: this movement is a glimpse of what few audiences ever get to see: the pianists practicing their scales. The scales of C, D, D, and E♭ are covered. Each one starts with a trill on the first and second note, then proceeds in scales with a few changes in the rhythm. Transitions between keys are accomplished with a blasting chord from all the instruments between scales. In some performances, the later, more difficult, scales are deliberately played increasingly out of time. The original edition has a note by the editors instructing the players to imitate beginners and their awkwardness. After the four scales, the key changes back to C, where the pianos play a moderate speed trill-like pattern in thirds, in the style of Charles-Louis Hanon or Carl Czerny, while the strings play a small part underneath. This movement is unusual in that the last three blasted chords do not resolve the piece, but rather lead into the next movement in the manner of primates.
XII "Fossiles et Vautours" (Fossils and Vultures) Edit
Strings, two pianos, clarinet, and xylophone: here, Saint-Saëns mimics his own composition, the Danse macabre, which makes heavy use of the xylophone to evoke the image of skeletons playing card games, the bones clacking together to the beat. The musical themes from Danse macabre are also quoted; the xylophone and the violin play much of the melody, alternating with the piano and clarinet. The piano part is especially difficult here—octaves that jump in quick thirds. Allusions to "Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman" (better known in the English-speaking world as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star), the French nursery rhymes "Au Clair de la lune", and "J'ai du Bon Tabac" (the second piano plays the same melody upside down [inversion]), the popular anthem "Partant pour la Syrie", as well as the aria "Una Voce poco fa" from Rossini's The Barber of Seville can also be heard. The musical joke in this movement, according to Leonard Bernstein's narration on his recording of the work with the New York Philharmonic, is that the musical pieces quoted are the fossils and vultures of Saint-Saëns's time.
XIII "Le Cygne" (The Swan) Edit
Main article: Le Cygne
Two pianos and cello: a slowly moving cello melody (which evokes the swan elegantly gliding over the water) is played over rippling sixteenths in one piano and rolled chords in the other (said to represent the swan's feet, hidden from view beneath the water, propelling it along).
A staple of the cello repertoire, this is one of the most well-known movements of the suite, usually in the version for cello with a solo piano which was the only publication of this work in Saint-Saëns's lifetime. More than twenty other arrangements of this movement have also been published, with solo instruments ranging from flute to alto saxophone.
A short ballet, The Dying Swan, was choreographed in 1905 by Mikhail Fokine to this movement and performed by Anna Pavlova. Pavlova gave some 4,000 performances of the dance and "swept the world."
XIV Final (Finale) Edit
Full ensemble: the finale opens on the same tremolo notes in the pianos as in the introduction, which is soon reinforced by the wind instruments, the glass harmonica, and the xylophone. The strings build the tension with a few low notes, leading to glissandi by the piano before the lively main melody is introduced. The Finale is somewhat reminiscent of an American carnival of the 19th century, with one piano always maintaining a bouncy eighth-note rhythm. Although the melody is relatively simple, the supporting harmonies are ornamented in the style that is typical of Saint-Saëns' compositions for piano; dazzling scales, glissandi, and trills. Many of the previous movements are quoted here from the introduction, the lion, the swift animals, hens and roosters, the cuckoo, and the kangaroos. The work ends with a series of seven "hee-haws" from the zebras as if to say that the zebra has the last laugh, before the final strong group of C major chords.