Camille Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre


Camille Saint-Saëns’ tone poem, Danse Macabre was composed in 1874. It started out as an art song for voice and piano, but was soon adapted as an orchestral work. The work is based on a poem by Henri Cazalis, which is based upon French superstition:


The winter wind blows and the night is dark;

Moans are heard in the linden-trees.

Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,

Running and leaping in their shrouds.


According to legend, Death appears at midnight on Halloween and calls to the dead to dance for him whilst he plays the fiddle – which is represented by Saint-Saëns’ detuned solo violin. The story follows the skeleton’s dancing until dawn breaks and the graves are filled again for another year. This quintessential Halloween story is told all around the world even today, and Saint-Saëns’ work is a musical depiction of it.


The Music

Opening with a lone harp playing a D twelve times to represent the twelve strokes of midnight, which is accompanied by tenuous chords from the string section. The solo violin jumps into action playing the memorable theme. This theme is built on a tritone, which used to be known as the diabolus in musica (The Devil in Music). The solo violin uses scordatura tuning, which means that the tuning of the soloist’s top string is a semitone below the orchestra to create a dissonant atmosphere. 

A solo flute takes the reins on the melody, the first and second themes are passed around various parts of the orchestra. The music becomes more energetic as each section takes the various themes over. The woodwinds quote the Dies Irae, which adds to the foreboding nature of the piece. 

Saint-Saëns makes particular use of the xylophone to imitate the sounds of the dancing skeletons. This use of musical imagery makes the piece even more powerful in its messages. 

The orchestra unite to reach the main climax of the work, with the solo violin constantly playing slightly above them to keep the melody moving. There is a quick abrupt break in the texture before it started to build again. The coda section represents the dawn breaking, with the oboe representing a cockerel’s crow. The skeletons return to their grave swiftly…until next year!


Final Thoughts

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


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Camille Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No.1


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