Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre
Posted on 14th October 2023 at 14:30
This month, in preparation for Halloween – our blog explores the spooky Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns.
The composition is familiar to listeners all over the world, thanks to its use on film and TV soundtracks, where it has frequently been employed to instil a sense of the uncanny.
With its inventive instrumentation, cleverly arranged to evoke a scene of the dancing dead, the work is suggested as a piece suitable for Year 3 and above in the Music Model Curriculum.
We suggest activities linked to the piece.
Saint-Saëns was born on 9th October 1835 in Paris. Saint-Saëns’ musical ability was clear from a young age:, he was able to pick out tunes on the piano by the age of three, having perfect pitch. His early piano lessons were with his great aunt, Charlotte Masson, and he began lessons with Camille-Marie Stamaty when he was seven years old. His mother, Clémence Saint-Saëns, was aware that her son was a child prodigy, but did not want him to become famous when he was too young. His first official public concert took place when he was ten at the Salle Pleyel in Paris. The programme included Mozart's Piano Concerto in B♭ (K450), and Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto.
When he was thirteen years old, Saint-Saëns began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire, where he was encouraged to study organ as well as piano. In 1851, Saint-Saëns began composition studies with Fromental Halévy, who also taught Gounod and Bizet.
On leaving the Conservatoire in 1853, Saint-Saëns gained employment as organist at Saint-Merri near the Hôtel de Ville. He earned a good income with regular services, weddings and funerals and this allowed him to focus on his composition. In 1858 he moved to La Madeleine, the official church of the Empire. In the same year he wrote his first Piano Concerto - he was the first French composer to write a piano concerto.
He was a champion of new music and promoted the work of Liszt, Robert Schumann and Wagner.
In 1861, Saint-Saëns took on a teaching post at École de Musique Classique et Religieuse, Paris where his pupils included Fauré, who later commented that he appreciated his teacher introducing him to contemporary composers.
This was where Saint-Saëns began work on what became his most famous work - The Carnival of the Animals, although the work was not completed until 1886.
Following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, Saint-Saëns was instrumental in the launch of Société Nationale de Musique, a pro-French Musical Society. Founding members included Saint-Saëns’ former pupil Fauré, Franck and Massenet.
In February 1877, Saint-Saëns’ full-length opera Le timbre d’argent was premiered. It’s dedicatee, Albert Libon, died three months later, leaving Saint-Saëns a large legacy
"To free him from the slavery of the organ of the Madeleine and to enable him to devote himself entirely to composition".
Saint-Saëns wrote his Messe de Requiem in memory of his friend.
Saint-Saëns became very popular in England from the 1880s - with his work featured in the inaugural “First Night of the Proms” in 1895. In 1886 The Philharmonic Society of London commissioned his Third Symphony, often known as the “Organ Symphony”. Saint-Saëns conducted the premiere of his Symphony as well as appearing as the soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in a performance conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The work was premiered in Paris the following year to great success.
Despite Saint-Saëns’ early support of contemporary music, as the 20th Century developed, he was highly critical of the new composers making their names such as Debussy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.
In 1913, he gave what was to have been his farewell concert as a pianist in Paris;, however, during the First World War, he gave many performances to raise money for war charities. His last concert took place in November 1921, following which he went on holiday to Algiers where he died of a heart attack on 16th December 1921.
Danse Macabre was originally written in 1872 as a song based on a poem by Henri Cazalis. Saint-Saëns re-worked the piece in 1874 into a Tone Poem, basing the violin part on the vocal line of the song.
The piece is inspired by the legend that Death appears at Halloween, calling the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle. The skeletons dance until dawn when the cockerel crows and the skeletons return to their graves for another year.
The piece opens with the clock chiming midnight with 12 notes from the harp, accompanied by a French horn and the string section of the orchestra. For the opening violin notes, Saint-Saëns took inspiration from the Mediaeval world by using the diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") tritone - an A and an Eb.
The first main theme is heard on the flute, before the violin plays a descending scale. These two themes, or parts of them are moved around the orchestra.
At the middle of the piece Saint-Saëns uses a pieces of music known as the Dies Irae, taken from the Requiem linked to Gregorian chant.
The oboe represents the cockerel call signifying dawn and the skeletons return to their graves.
One important instrument to listen out for is the xylophone which Saint-Saëns uses to represent the rattling bones.
The full list of instruments are:
Solo Violin - or Violin Obbligato
4 French horns (sometimes separated on the score into 1st and 2nd horn followed by 3rd and 4th horn)
2 tenor trombones,
1 bass trombone,
percussion - xylophone, bass drum, cymbals and triangle,
The strings use a mix of techniques to create the music - both “pizzicato” where the string is plucked (marked “pizz” on the score) or “arco” where the bow is moved across the strings (marked “arco” on the score).
The piece is a Waltz in 3/4 time to highlight the feeling of dance. Often one instrument or group of instruments play on beat 1, with other instruments playing on beats 2 and 3, particular in the string section.
The score can be found here.
One of the interesting things to note in the piece is that violin is tuned differently for this work. The violin’s E string is tuned down to Eb - a semi-tone lower than usual. This gives the violin a very particular sound or timbre.
Danse Macabre has been used in TV and Film to suggest Halloween and the Devil - from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Jonathan Creek, to Shrek The Third and the recent series of Good Omens.
And perhaps Saint-Saëns inspired the composer of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony to use a xylophone to illustrate dancing skeletons:
This is a great piece to focus on active listening - really listening to the music.
Some things to consider:
What instrument(s) can you hear?
Is it a solo instrument (playing on it’s own) or are there two or more instruments playing?
Which theme is being played?
Are the instruments playing loudly or quietly?
Are the instruments playing notes that get higher in pitch (ascending) or notes that get lower in pitch (descending)?
Here is a video that introduces the various theme and instruments.
This piece can also be linked to an art project - encouraging the pupils to draw or paint what they imagine is happening in different parts of the piece.
Here is a cartoon version of the piece.
Tagged as: Danse Macabre, HALLOWEEN, Model Music Curriculum, NEW PLAN FOR MUSIC EDUCATION, Saint-Saëns
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