Saint-Saëns’ “Danse macabre”: a perennial appreciation

Or, a musical memory

Halloween may be past, but All Souls’ Day is the second-best day of the year to discuss Camille Saint-Saëns’ 1875 symphonic poem Danse macabre. Besides, the day one of my grade-school music teachers introduced us to it was twenty years ago either this year or last year. So I’m late any way you slice it. But better late than never.

I remember sitting in the cafeteria, where our music class often happened, and really doing just that: sitting there for seven minutes listening to a recording of this piece. Ours was not an overly rambunctious class, by and large pretty content to sit and listen to things, but I feel this aural object was special. It is, as I said, a symphonic poem, belonging to that nebulous genre typical of the Romantic era; and in retrospect it’s no surprise at all that it should have spoken to me so instantaneously and indelibly, given its temporal and environmental and thematic resemblances to my first favorite, Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Saint-Saëns, a fellow French Romantic, seems to me to be Dukas’ lighter-hearted parallel, one who didn’t destroy much of his work in a spiral of self-loathing. And, for what it’s worth, the piece’s Wiki includes a 1925 recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. (The version I listen to most is Daniel Barenboim conducting the Orchestre de Paris. As you will.)

Those seven minutes have, on first listen and over time, taught me more than I could ever have thought to wonder about the relationship between major and minor modes. More immediately, they taught me about the tritone, one of two arresting themes that the solo violin lavishes on the listener. As for the other theme, while I’ve never seen it directly correlated to “Eleanor Rigby,” I maintain that its descending half-step gradations are too distinct not to have been at least an unconscious inspiration. George Martin would have known it.

The piece took shape as an expanded version of an earlier composition of Saint-Saëns’, an art song based on a play by the Italian playwright Camillo Antona-Traversi. In this rework, the violin took the place of the vocal line, better suiting the story it told. “Death tuning his violin,” my teacher said of the tritone. I was riveted.

According to the legend on which the play and musical works are based, the personified Death rouses the dead from their graves every Halloween night and plays the fiddle while they dance, until the cock crows and they return to their graves for the next year. At the time of its premiere, the symphonic poem caused a bit of a scandal for using the xylophone—then still an orchestral novelty—to evoke the dancing skeletons’ clacking bones.

It’s got a cinematic sensibility from the beginning, with twelve D notes from the harp indicating the stroke of midnight. The first major theme to appear, introduced by a flute and echoed by the orchestra, is modally ambiguous in a pleasant, bewildering way. Even a listener who is unfamiliar with the narrative is pulled into the atmosphere of the piece, which contemporary audiences found anxiety-inducing. A classic case of I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet but your kids are gonna love it.

When I listen to it now (as I do at least once a year), Danse macabre feels almost like a pop song of its era. Unlike its counterparts, it’s short enough for the major themes to never really be lost, running contrapuntally throughout and increasing in urgency. The transitional phrases embellish, accentuate, add wonderful flourishes without impeding our understanding of the main ideas. Those ideas join forces at the end, fitting together like a puzzle. The whole thing is accessible, for lack of a better term, to a degree that resonates with people who don’t listen to classical music. Subsequent creators have recognized this and tapped into it: a skim further down the Wiki reveals a lengthy list of pop culture usages.

I count myself lucky to have been exposed to this work so early in my life and will be indulging in it for years to come. And today I learned that it was immediately snapped up and transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt! Who transcribed every non-piano piece known to man. But that’s another post.

Dedicated to Frank Bigenho, who taught me the tremendous power of appreciating music.

Image: now THAT guy looks like fun (via Gramophone)

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (

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