Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre

By the time he reached his 20th birthday, Camille Saint-Saëns was already known internationally as a composer and pianist to be reckoned with. Not only was he a precocious talent, but during the first half of his 84-year life he was also a champion of new musical forms. A friend and disciple of Franz Liszt — whose first piano concerto we will hear later on this program — Saint-Saëns adapted many of the Hungarian trailblazer’s new ideas to his own compositional voice. One such innovation was the symphonic poem — a form in which musical ideas followed a narrative, emotional structure rather than traditional patterned musical constructs.

Between his mid-30s and mid-40s, Saint-Saëns penned four symphonic poems. The third of these, written in 1874, would become the most famous: the short, lively “Danse Macabre.” In this case, the composer was working from an actual poem, by Henri Cazalis.

Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) by Henri Cazalis.

Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.

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.

Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking.
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack-
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

So effectively did the composer capture the rattle of bones and devilish playfulness of the poem, that “Danse Macabre” was initially rejected by the public as too dark and demonic. But time would prove such criticism laughable; “Danse Macabre” has since become the composer’s most-performed work.

David Bowden writes:

In Saint-Saëns’ evocative setting, the solo violin represents the devil who is playing his fiddle for the dance. In an inside musical joke, the violin top string is purposely mistuned down a half step to a tritone, also known as the “devil’s interval,” as a part of the soloist’s challenge. This means that the soloist has to re-finger all of the notes on that string. So, in today’s performance, our Concertmaster is the “devil-du-jour!”

The dance begins at the stroke of midnight (perhaps Halloween) in a graveyard. Listen for the 12 strokes of the distant bell quietly tolling in the harp right at the beginning. The skeletal dancers are represented by the xylophone’s brittle, bony sounds as they mimic back to the violin a response to his theme. Soon the skeletons arise from their graves and begin dancing to the devil’s unearthly tune. The skeletal dancers are represented by the xylophone’s brittle, bony sounds as they mimic back to the violin a response to his theme. (By the way, this xylophone lick is taken and parodied by Saint-Saëns in his brilliant and musically hilarious “Carnival of the Animals” to represent fossils). The knowledgeable and keen-eared listener may be able to hear the “dies irae” chant (a melody from the traditional requiem about the “Day of Wrath” that has often been used in musical personifications of “Death”) lightheartedly played in the woodwinds and harp about two and a half minutes into the piece in a major key. They are having fun dancing!

The devil does his work and the frenetic and frenzied dancing goes faster and faster until it stops abruptly and we hear a rooster crow (listen for the oboe). The night is almost over; dawn is arriving and all scurry back into the depths away from the coming light of the sun while the devil mournfully finishes his tune and slinks away.

Program notes provided by Joe Nickell

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