Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre

Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre

The danse macabre of Saint-Saëns makes dream the most fanatics of classical music by the beauty of its melody. But above all because of its message and its moral! You may wonder what this music means and what instruments play the key roles in this composition?

So welcome to American Skull! Death and everything that touches it closely or remotely is our field of expertise. And we are delighted to return today to one of the great classics of the history of music: the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns.

In this article, we will see together what this unusual melody represents. How the composer manages to make the skeletons dance and the devil speaks with musical instruments. And above all, what is the moral of this story and how to take advantage of it. Let's start right after listening to the piece of music in question:

Camille Saint-Saëns

 Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns was a French composer of music from the second half of the 19th century. Saint-Saëns was considered a deeply traditional composer. His work is much more rooted in the classical and romantic music that preceded him and much less in the impressionism and modern classical music that took over in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is often considered one of the most important French composers of all time.

Danse macabre is one of several four-tone poems Saint-Saëns composed in the 1870s, all inspired to some extent by examples of Franz Liszt (whose own Totentanz dates from 1849) and exploring both Liszt's concept of thematic transformation and novel instrumentation.

Saint-Saëns developed the song as a tone poem in 1874, giving much of the vocal part to a solo violin, and using the xylophone to represent the bones of the skeleton clashing. He also introduces, near the middle, the Dies irae, a Gregorian chant theme from the Requiem Mass, which composers often refer to when evoking scenes of death and judgment.

Danse Macabre

What to retain from this music:

  • Composed in 1874
  • Duration : about 8 minutes
  • Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone), harp and strings
  • First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on August 25, 1922

Camille Saint-Saëns was many things. A scholar and writer with a wide range of interests, he was also a great traveller, a multifaceted musician who excelled as a keyboardist, composer, conductor, teacher and publisher. He lived in contempt of the work of Debussy and Stravinsky (among others) and is often considered a conservative, even reactionary, composer. But in his early and middle career, Saint-Saëns championed the more progressive wing of contemporary music (notably Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt) and his own music was often highly original in form and orchestration

Between his thirties and mid-forties, Saint-Saëns wrote four symphonic poems. The third, written in 1874, would become the most famous. It is, of course, the "Danse Macabre" that we are talking about today. The composer worked from a real poem, by Henri Cazalis.

The composer captured the bone rattle and devilish mischief of the poem so well that "Danse Macabre" was initially rejected by the public as too dark and demonic. 😈 But time has shown that this criticism was laughable. Danse macabre has since become the composer's most performed work.

Music "Danse Macabre"

Meaning of the Music "Danse Macabre"

In Saint-Saëns' evocative setting, the solo violin represents the devil playing his violin for the dance. In an inside musical joke, the top string of the violin is purposely out of tune by a half step on a tritone, also known as the "devil's interval." As part of the challenge to the soloist, this means that the soloist must retune all the notes on that string. So, in today's performance, our solo violin is the "devil-of-the-day"! 👹

The dance begins at the stroke of midnight (perhaps on Halloween) in a cemetery. It is not to be confused with the Day of the Dead. Listen to the 12 strokes of the distant bell that sounds softly with the harp from the beginning. The skeletal dancers are represented by the fragile, bony sounds of the xylophone that mimic a violin response to its theme. Soon the skeletons emerge from their graves and begin to dance to the supernatural tune of the devil. The skeletal dancers are represented by the fragile, bony sounds of the xylophone.

 The orchestra unites to reach the work's climax, with the solo violin constantly playing slightly above it to keep the melody moving. There is a quick and abrupt break in texture before it begins to build again. The coda section represents the break of dawn, with the oboe representing a rooster crow. The skeletons quickly return to their graves... until next year!

The devil does his work and the frantic, frenzied dance goes faster and faster until it stops abruptly and we hear the rooster crow (listen to the oboe). The night is almost over, dawn arrives and everyone rushes into the depths to get away from the incoming sunlight, while the devil sadly finishes his melody and runs away. 

 Legend of the Dance of Death

According to legend, Death appears at midnight on Halloween and calls the dead to dance for her while she plays the violin. She is represented by Saint-Saëns' out-of-tune solo violin. The story follows the skeleton's dance until dawn and the graves are filled again for another year. This quintessential Halloween story is still told around the world today and Saint-Saëns' work is a musical representation of it.

Saint-Saëns used the xylophone melody from Danse Macabre as a parody in his later work Carnival of the Animals, whose theme is repeated in the "Fossils" movement. The music of Danse Macabre is representative of darkness, skeletons, wind, graves and more, making it a sumptuous Halloween treat!

It is considered a sound poem, meaning that it tells a story or a fable through the music itself. Different instruments represent different characters, the violin is the devil, the oboe is a raven, the xylophone is a bone being struck. Danse macabre is based on an old medieval allegory about the "dance of death" which was essentially a "dance" that everyone knew because everyone was going to die one day.

Legend of the Dance of Death

 Morality of the Danse Macabre

An emperor, a beggar, a monk, a mother, a musician... Whatever our position in life, the dance of death unites us all. Can we, the living, dance with the same unbridled fervor as these white skeletons that cross the darkness? How fragile is life, how vain are its earthly glories... ☠️

With vivacity and verve, the author depicts the fantastic tale of the frenzied dance of Death. The musical material of Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre proved ideal for multiple piano treatments, and to date we have created no less than seven different compositions from the original score. In all iterations, we exploit the capabilities of the piano, illustrating the atmosphere with swirling harmonic figurations and the clatter of bones with percussive rhythms and effects.

In this story, skeletons follow the living humans to their graves in a lively waltz. Kings, knights, and commoners join them to make the point that regardless of status, wealth, or life's accomplishments, death comes for everyone. At a time when epidemics of the Black Death and the seemingly endless battles between France and England in the Hundred Years' War claimed thousands of lives, macabre images like the Dance of Death were a way to cope with the ever-present prospect of mortality. 💀

The moral of the dance of death represents how death is the great social equalizer because no one escapes the dance with death. And there are a number of paintings and artworks inspired by this philosophy.