‘The Swan’, written by Camille Saint-Saens for cello with piano accompaniment, is the thirteenth movement of a larger piece called ‘Carnival of the Animals’. The Carnival is in fourteen sections. It includes tortoise, elephant, kangaroo, an aviary, pianists(?), fossils and ‘characters with long ears’.
Saint-Saens wrote the piece in 1886, however it was not published until after his death in 1921. He suppressed performances of The Carnival, thinking it was too frivolous and would damage his reputation as a serious composer. In fact only ‘The Swan’ did he permit to be published in his lifetime.
The composer also studied geology, mathematics, botany, archaeology, as well as collecting butterflies. He believed that art and science should replace religion. He may seem to us like a progressive, forward thinking man, but he was far from that. Deep down he was a conservative. In 1913, he was among those who stormed out of the infamous premiere of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ because ‘the bassoon had been misused in the opening bars’. He even hated Debussy. He probably would not have looked kindly on Forgotten Fish Memory’s version of his Swan for theremin and keyboard.
The theremin is an enchanting sounding instrument, difficult to play well. Many musicians who previously played violin were drawn to this strange etheric instrument because the skill set needed is similar. Clara Rockmore, the most famous thereminist, for example, had been a violin prodigy. But even in the hands of a virtuoso only certain tunes are suitable for this most demanding of machines. Tunes which are not too quick, not staccato, and don’t involve great sudden leaps of melody. You won’t see many (any?) players attempting ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ or Mozart’s ‘Queen of the Night’. ‘The Swan’ is one of the most well known and popular tunes in the theremin canon, but it is not an easy piece to play. The second and fourth lines ascend with quick short notes, the melody then becomes slower and more voluptuous, more theremin friendly, but even here there are tricky shifts of key and harmony, before reaching the end where the challenging ascending line returns.
This version of ‘The Swan’ by Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra is for theremin and DX7 keyboard. The keyboard plays the basic chord accompaniment but all other sounds are produced by the theremin, showing its great diversity of sound and ability to create an other worldly ambience.