Danse macabre, op. 40

Printer Friendly VersionSend by email

            Camille Saint-Saëns lived a long life, and was remarkable for his wide-ranging intellectual interests and abilities.  As a child he was, of course, a precocious musical talent, but even then he evinced a strong natural interest in almost every academic subject--including, but certainly not restricted to, astronomy, archaeology, mathematics, religion, Latin, and Greek.  In addition to a life of musical composition and virtuoso keyboard performance, he also enjoyed success as a music journalist, champion of early music (Handel and Bach), and leadership in encouraging French musical tradition.  His father died when he was an infant, and he grew into middle age extraordinarily devoted to his mother--his marriage at the age of forty to a nineteen-year old did not last long.  He simply left the house one day in 1881 and chose never to see her again; she died in 1950 at the age of ninety-five.    Saint-Saëns went on to live an active life, filling an important rôle in the musical life of France--as performer, composer, author, spokesman, and scholar.  He was peripatetic--researching Handel manuscripts in London, conducting concerts in Chicago and Philadelphia, visiting Uruguay and writing a hymn for their national holiday, and vacationing in the Canary Islands.  He celebrated seventy-five years of concertizing in August of 1921 in his eighty-sixth year, and died a few months later.

            The danse macabre, or “dance of death,” is one of the most common themes in European art, literature, and music since the Middle Ages.  The fourteenth century was an especially rough one, the “Black Death” alone killing perhaps two hundred million souls in Europe—not to mention the Hundred Year’s War and various famines.   In the face of almost certain, widespread, and early death, there arose the allegory of death dancing with everyone, regardless of station.   The allegory appears in countless frescos, murals, and paintings in churches, is a common theme in drama, and the subject of woodcuts in early publications.   The ubiquity of death is matched by an almost obsessive preoccupation in artistic representation.  The most common imagery is that of death as a skeleton, dancing with a procession of souls that represent all of society:  the Pope, emperors, the rich, the poor, beggars, children—everyone leveled by their common end.  An end that was certain, probably soon, and thus should be prepared for.  That allegory is still with us as a common cultural artifact, and surfaces everywhere in the art of our time.

            The Romantics of the nineteenth century could not resist the historical, gloomy allusion, and composers from Berlioz, Liszt, and a host of others wove it into their compositions. Saint-Saëns, while perhaps most comfortable with more abstract music, nevertheless was an equal master of telling “stories” in music.  So, in the 1870s, influenced by the early innovator in “tone poems,” Franz Liszt, he composed four of his own.   His Danse macabre from 1874 for orchestra is a re-working of a song that he had composed two years earlier with a text that vividly describes the figure of death scraping on his violin at midnight, cold winds blowing, as dancers leap, their bones “cracking.”

            He recast the vocal part as a solo violin, accompanied by an orchestra that includes the xylophone—a perfect allusion to rattling bones.  The solo harp opens with twelve sonorous notes depicting the stroke of midnight, followed by the entrance of the solo “fiddle” of death. Saint-Saëns masterfully evokes the “scratchy,” sinister fiddle by calling for the instrument to be retuned by lowering the top E string to an Eb—thus giving the famous diabolus in musica (devil in music), or tritone, the fundamental dissonance in both harmony and melody.  Two themes are heard:  one in the solo flute, and the second a descending scale in the solo violin.  They furnish the basic ideas of the piece. After a short fugal section, the famous Dies iræ (day of wrath) from the chant in the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass is heard staccato in the woodwinds.  This ominous theme appears in a wealth of compositions, perhaps most famously in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, but everywhere, from Haydn to John Williams’ Star Wars.  The ghastly dance continues, but eventually ends at dawn, heralded by a solo oboe depicting the cock’s crow.   The solo violin, now less ominous, and more consoling plays a short elegy, and the skeletons return to their graves--the rest live for another day.  Halloween is over.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan