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Song Stories: Camille Saint-Saëns and “Danse macabre”

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The month of October always brings to mind Halloween, which has become more of a season rather than a one-day observance. There are many works of music that depict the spookiness, darkness and morbidity of the annual tradition, but few pieces capture the spirit of the season as playfully as Danse macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921). Originally conceived as an art song for voice and piano with a French Text by the poet Henri Cazalis, it eventually evolved into a tone poem for violin and large orchestra.

Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, and became one of the most well-known composers of the 19th century. His father served as a clerk in the government service, and passed away shortly after his son’s birth. Camille was then cared for by his mother and adoptive aunt, whose husband had recently died. His aunt was his first piano teacher, and he eventually went on to study with Camille Stamaty (a pupil of Mendelssohn), and memorized all of the Beethoven piano sonatas by the age of ten. In 1848 he entered the Conservatoire de Paris, studying the organ with François Benoist and composition with Fromental Halévy, continuing to show his gifts as a pianist, organist and composer. He became interested in contemporary music, as well as the revival of music by earlier composers. Saint-Saëns composed his Symphony in A major at the age of 15, and composed prolifically until his death in 1921.

Camille Saint-Saëns, 1907. From The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Danse macabre, op. 40, was composed in 1874 and would go on to become Saint-Saëns’s most famous tone poem. From the original art song for voice and piano, he expanded and reworked the piece into a symphonic poem, where a solo violin plays the vocal line. Every year on Halloween, according to legend, “Death” appears at midnight. He calls forth the skeletons from their graves to dance to his tunes while he accompanies them with his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin) until the rooster crows at dawn and they return to their graves. The piece opens with a single note in the harp, counting the twelve strokes of midnight. The solo violin, with the E-string tuned down a half-step, plays the dissonant tri-tone chord. During the Medieval and Baroque eras, this chord was known as the Diabolus in musica (“the Devil chord in music”). In the middle of the work, there is a direct quote of “Dies Irae” played by the woodwinds, which eventually becomes the work’s second theme. Saint-Saëns introduces a xylophone to the symphony orchestra to imitate the sounds of rattling bones. The coda represents the dawn breaking, signaled by a rooster’s crow (played by the oboe), and the skeletons have to return to their graves. The work perfectly blends programmatic elements, compositional skill, and virtuosity into an amazing work of art.

Like all great music, this work was imitated by many over the years. The re-tuning of the violin for the tri-tone interval was used by many composers, with my personal favorites being Béla Bartók’s Contrasts for violin, clarinet, and piano, and James Newton Howard’s chilling score to the 2002 film, Signs. The “Dies Irae” theme originated in the 15th century and was used in too many instances to mention, but notable occurrences include Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim, and “Into the Unknown” by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez from Frozen II. Rachmaninoff actually quoted the “Dies Irae” theme in a dozen of his works.

We hope that you enjoyed learning about Camille Saint-Saëns and Danse macabre. If you would like to explore works in the NLS collection that relate to this blog, please consider the following selections. Please note that all materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. You can contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.


Brown, Bill. Me and the Devil Blues: for guitar. Bill Brown teaches both the acoustic rhythm guitar and slide guitar parts of “Me and the Devil Blues” in the style of Eric Clapton without the use of music notation. Cartridge only. (DBM03825)

____ Shame the Devil: for Guitar. In the style of Robin Trower. In this lesson you learn both the rhythm and lead guitar parts to the studio version of this song. A full demonstration is provided at the beginning and then the lesson is taught “by ear” in short phrases. Once you have mastered the lesson three different versions of the backing tracks are given for you (and a friend) to practice with and perform. (DBM03477)

The Devil in Opera. Includes excerpts from Der Freischütz, Faust, and Tannhäuser. (DBM00186)

Irving, Washington. The Complete Tales of Washington Irving. Includes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The volume contains satires, ghost stories, and fables, many of them set in New York City and the Hudson Valley in the early days of Dutch settlement. Introduction by Charles Neider. 1975. (DB 51748)

Sympathy for the Devil: as performed by Rolling Stones. From the “Play it now Tunes” series, this lesson teaches how to play “Sympathy for the Devil on guitar entirely by audio instruction and examples. Cartridge only. (DBM03165)

The Symphonic Poem. Discussion of how the symphonic poem expresses poetic imagery and performance of well-known examples–Liszt’s Les Preludes and Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre. (DBM00058)


Berlioz, Hector. Symphonie fantastique. Full orchestral score to Symphonie Fantastique in bar over bar format. Includes original program notes by Berlioz in original French with English and German translations in contracted braille. (BRM36745)

Ravel, Maurice. Gaspard de la nuit: 3 poémes pour piano d’après Aloysius Bertrand. One of Ravel’s most difficult piano works, it is considered “devilish” for the nightmarish fantasies it portrays. Bar over bar format. (BRM00715)

Rachmaninoff, Sergei. Rapsodie, op. 43 sur un thème de Paganini. Arranged for two pianos, four hands in bar over bar format. (BRM23101)

Saint-Saëns, Camille. Le carnaval des animaux. The Carnival of the Animals. Originally for 2 pianos and chamber orchestra; arranged for piano solo. The movement, “Fossils,” uses the xylophone to depict bones, just as in Danse Macabre. Bar over bar format. (BRM37208)

____ Danse macabre: poéme symphonique d’après une poésie de Henri Cazalis, op. 40. Transcribed for 2 pianos, 4 hands. Bar over bar format. (BRM29498)

Sondheim, Stephen. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM29085)

For more information about Saint-Saëns, you can read this previous blog post from the NLS Music Section.

The Music Division at the Library of Congress has Franz Liszt’s piano transcription of Danse macabre in its holdings.

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