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  • Chris Anderson

Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre

As tomorrow is Halloween I thought I’d finish our composer of the month with one of his most famous pieces. "Danse Macabre" is a famous tone poem composed by Camille Saint-Saëns in 1874. It is often associated with Halloween and other spooky or supernatural themes. The piece is set in the key of G minor and features a lively and eerie waltz melody played by the solo violin, accompanied by a full orchestra.

The title "Danse Macabre" can be translated as "Dance of Death" in English. The piece was inspired by the French legend of the "Dance of Death," in which Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance on Halloween night. Saint-Saëns' composition captures the eerie and whimsical nature of this legend with its playful and haunting melodies.

Interestingly it was originally a poem that Saint-Saëns set to music but then he wrote it for orchestra…

  • Composition and Inspiration:

    • Camille Saint-Saëns composed "Danse Macabre" in 1874, originally as a tone poem for orchestra. He later adapted it for other instrumental combinations, including a version for violin and piano.

    • The piece draws inspiration from the French legend of the "Danse Macabre," which dates back to the Middle Ages. In this legend, Death personified calls upon the dead to dance at midnight on Halloween. The skeletal figures, representing people from all walks of life, come to life and dance until dawn.

  • Structure and Melodic Themes:

    • "Danse Macabre" is written in the key of G minor and is structured as a rondo. The primary melody is played by a solo violin, which represents Death's fiddler, summoning the dead to dance.

    • The opening of the piece features a harp and pizzicato strings imitating the chiming of a clock, setting the scene for the midnight dance. As the piece progresses, the main waltz theme becomes increasingly animated and macabre.

    • The xylophone, with its distinctive and bone-like timbre, plays a significant role in the composition. It is used to mimic the sound of rattling bones as the skeletons dance.

  • Orchestration:

    • The orchestration includes strings, woodwinds, brass, harp, percussion (including the xylophone), and the solo violin.

    • Saint-Saëns uses the orchestra skillfully to create a whimsical yet eerie atmosphere. The violins, for instance, are used to represent the swirling and swirling of the ghostly dancers.

  • Programmatic Elements:

    • This piece is programmatic music, meaning it tells a story or paints a vivid picture through its musical elements. In "Danse Macabre," the listener can vividly imagine the scene of the dead rising and dancing in a ghostly procession.

  • Reception and Legacy:

    • "Danse Macabre" is one of Saint-Saëns' most famous and enduring compositions. It is often performed during Halloween-themed events and has been used in various forms of media to evoke a spooky or supernatural atmosphere.

    • It has been recorded numerous times by various orchestras and violinists, making it a staple in the classical music repertoire.

  • Related Art and Literature:

    • The legend of the "Danse Macabre" has inspired various works of art and literature throughout history. It is a recurring theme in European culture, especially during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

"Danse Macabre" is a captivating piece of programmatic music that vividly portrays the legend of the "Dance of Death." Its use of evocative melodies, orchestration, and the eerie xylophone make it a compelling and enduring work in the classical music canon, often associated with Halloween and the supernatural. An adaptation of it was also used as the theme tune to the BBC drama “Jonathan Creek”.

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