Skip to page content

FastNotes

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

  • Saint-Saëns set as songs a number of poems by Henri Cazalis (1840-1909), and found the lines for Danse macabre in the poet’s “Égalité, fraternité…”, writing a song version in 1872.

  • Saint-Saëns expanded the song as a tone poem in 1874, giving much of the vocal part to a solo violin, and using xylophone to depict the rattling skeleton bones.

  • He also introduces, about midway through, the Dies irae, a Gregorian chant theme from the Requiem Mass much referenced by composers summoning scenes of death and judgment.


Composed: 1874
Length: c. 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 Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 25, 1922, Alfred Hertz conducting

Camille Saint-Saëns was many things. Also a scholar and writer of wide-ranging interests and an equally wide-ranging traveler, he was a multifaceted musician who excelled as a keyboardist, composer, conductor, teacher, and editor. He lived to scorn the work of Debussy and Stravinsky (among others) and is often regarded as a conservative – if not reactionary – composer. But in the early and middle years of his career Saint-Saëns championed the most progressive wing of contemporary music (including Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt) and his own music was often highly original in form and orchestration.

Danse macabre is a case in point. It is one of four tone poems Saint-Saëns composed in the 1870s, all inspired to some degree by examples from Franz Liszt (whose own Totentanz dates from 1849) and exploring both Liszt’s thematic transformation concept and novel instrumentation. Saint-Saëns set as songs a number of poems by Henri Cazalis (1840-1909), and found the lines for Danse macabre in the poet’s “Égalité, fraternité…”, writing a song version in 1872. The text merges the legend of Death fiddling on Halloween as skeletons dance on their graves with the late Medieval tradition of the Dance of Death (danse macabre, Totentanz), in which all are equal, from king to peasant, and are led dancing to the grave.

Saint-Saëns expanded the song as a tone poem in 1874, giving much of the vocal part to a solo violin, and using xylophone (then almost exclusively a folk instrument) to depict the rattling skeleton bones. (An effect he later echoed in the “Fossils” movement of The Carnival of the Animals.) The obbligato violin makes much use of the tritone, the diminished fifth interval known to earlier musicians as the diabolus in musica, even employing a scordatura tuning with the instrument’s E string lowered to E-flat. Saint-Saëns also introduces, about midway through, the Dies irae, a Gregorian chant theme from the Requiem Mass much referenced by composers summoning scenes of death and judgment.

The piece caused some predictable consternation on its premiere, particularly the waltzing Dies irae and the (deliberately) abrasive scordatura tuning. But it also quickly became a popular hit. Liszt himself arranged it for piano not long after the premiere, and it soon found other keyboard transcriptions, including piano four hands and organ.

Saint-Saëns put a fragment of the text on the front of his manuscript score, which has been translated (anonymously) in English scores as:

Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, 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 clatter –
But Sst! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed!

John Henken is Publications Editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.