Camille Saint-Saens- “Le Carnaval des Animaux VII: Aquarium”
From his suite Le Carnaval des Animaux
This is the seventh movement of a work that French composer Saint-Saens hesitated to release because he feared it would be too frivolous for that stage of his career. But Terrence Malick hooked into the wandering double bass and the intermittent piano tinkles and used it to great (opposite) effect in his meditative Days of Heaven. The piece repeats four or five times in the film to suggest the grave passage of time and the mystical way people are drawn to one another.
Malick uses classical music in all of his films and appears to know a lot about it. I would credit his Days of Heaven music supervisor for the Saint-Saens choice, but he never hired one. Another reason the piece had to be of importance to Malick was that he had Ennio Morricone, the best film composer of all time, at his disposal, and he could have asked him at any time for “ethereal mystery” and gotten it. Instead, he used a public domain composition from ninety years ago.
So what’s my point? Even if you haven’t seen 1978’s Days of Heaven—which I believe is the first film to employ it—even if you don’t know what it’s called, you’ve undoubtedly heard this piece somewhere, since a lot of movie trailers use it as a shorthand for magical whimsy. Like, a lot of movie trailers. Terrence Malick’s films, as critically acclaimed as they are, as much as they matter to someone like me, have never been commercially successful. So what if his greatest contribution to mankind has been alerting people to a chill song? I know that’s a weird thing to admit, and, as a fan of his, I would like to think he has been responsible for something more significant. But as a pragmatist, I’m not sure that’s true.
That thought doesn’t just extend to underappreciated artists though. For example, many people consider Jimi Hendrix the best guitar player of all time, and his music, I’m sure, has moved people the world over. He even galvanized other folks to pick up a guitar and inspire future generations. But focusing on that would be ignoring the way Jimi Hendrix died.
He died, of course, by choking on his own vomit when he was wasted. Which is why almost anyone has turned an over-served friend over and insisted that he sleep on his stomach. Sure, Jimi Hendrix played some imaginative, transcendent guitar, but did his music literally save lives?
Even the people who have the power to change the world can never predict exactly how they’ll change it.