This post is brought to you by Canon Fodder: a musicology blog that takes a humorous, vernacular, and belligerently educational approach to classical music. Canon Fodder is written and produced by Molly Phelan and Lydia Zodda, former Bay Area residents and performers, and active Awesöme Orchestra admirers.
You’ve heard of Christmas in July, now get ready for Halloween in March! I mean seriously though, you can never start celebrating too early, right?
PIECE: Danse macabre
COMPOSER: Camille Saint-Saëns
ERA/GENRE: Romantic / Tone poem
GOOD FOR: Witchy dance parties in the woods, inviting ghosts to make their presence known in your home.
Camille Saint-Saëns was a French composer who lived a very long life over the very happenin’ and cool span of history from 1835 to 1921. He basically lived through the entire romantic period of music and into early jazz-influenced classical music and atonality. I mean just as an example of how much music changed over his lifetime, here is an aria from Meyerbeer's 1831 opera Robert le diable (Robert the Devil) which caused a scandal for its weird "ballet of dead nuns" scene, but harmonically-speaking it's all pretty conventional.
and here is a scene from Ravel's 1925 opera L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and The Enchantments) where you can see that both harmony and story have gotten...more abstract...
And Saint-Saëns managed to keep up a healthy career throughout all of that! I mean, later he was kind of a grumpy old man about changes in the musical world, but we can forgive him because he was also, like, really good at writing the kind of music he thought we all should be listening to.
As a child, he was prodigious at both composing and playing piano/organ and after studying at the Paris Conservatory he had a successful career, first as a church organist, then as a freelance pianist and composer and later, a teacher. While he was teaching his students, he was inspired to write his most well-known work The Carnival of the Animals for and about his students. If you aren't familiar, stop everything right now because a delightful treat awaits you if you want to put on this wonderful version with Leonard Bernstein’s incredible commentary!
In the same year, he also wrote his much-beloved Third Symphony aka The “Organ” Symphony aka THE THEME FROM BABE (although actually, the not-watered-down-for-90's-kids organ symphony is definitely more metal).
It is also pretty well documented that Saint-Saëns was a big ol' nerd who loved philosophy, archeology, math and the classics, and was a decent amateur astronomer.
So now that we’ve got the basics of the man covered, let’s move on to the music.
Danse macabre is often translated to “Dance of Death” but that's not really an exact translation, and truthfully there isn’t any perfect translation for it. The idea of a Danse Macabre was a popular late medieval meme to remind you that Death is always coming for you and it pops up in music and art, especially around the plague and other fun death-times like that.
This piece combines that memento mori imagery, which ol’ nerdy Saint-Saëns would have surely come across in his studies, with an old French legend. The legend claims Death appears at midnight each Halloween and plays his fiddle, calling up all the dead from their graves to dance for him until the cock crows at dawn.
This work is a “tone poem”, which was a relatively new musical form at this point having been recently invented (or at least popularized) by Saint-Saëns’ buddy Franz Liszt. A tone poem (also called a symphonic poem) is a one-movement-long, orchestral work that musically illustrates a poem/short story/entire novel or more abstract things like paintings or ideas, or in this case the Danse macabre!
Though this piece was not initially a success (people were kind of disturbed by it), Liszt was quite fond of it. He had invented the damn genre of tone poems, and he had even written some similarly spooky-themed works so it was probably as much in his own self-interest to promote the hell out of Danse macabre. He transcribed Saint-Saëns work for virtuoso piano and the work steadily gained popularity from there. I can't possibly get into how BIG of a deal Liszt was in a post about Saint-Saëns, but this was essentially the equivalent of, like, Beyonce covering your song and midnight releasing it on youtube. Since then this piece has been picked up and used in so many different ways, it shouldn't be too surprising if it sounds familiar. Among my favorite appearances are a Jameson commercial...
A terrifying French film that is important to film people and upsetting to me...
And my personal favorite: In one of the top 5 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes of all time, Giles puts Danse macabre on as music for his presentation after the entire town is stricken with silence.
Let's get to the music itself and do our WALKTHROUGH! We're going to use this crystal clear recording from the Orchestra de Paris, so all of the timings below are in reference to this video but for your listening pleasure clicking on any of the timings will open up the video in a new window at that precise start time.
The work begins with a harp striking midnight by playing a single note 12 times, while the strings provide soft harmonies underneath suggesting all has been peaceful up to this point.
A solo violin intrudes rudely (0:25), crashing our nice harmonies with a tritone, which almost always represents the devil, death, and all things bad and was historically known as diabolus in musica "The Devil in Music" in Medieval/Baroque music. Click here for an example/explanation. Here, it represents our Devil popping up to earth and calling up all his ghoulies and skeleton pals from the grave like an alarm clock to party.
The flute picks up the first theme as the party starts off quietly, with simple orchestral texture but definitely buzzing with excitement. Both the peppy first theme (0:32) and the broader second theme (0:50) have been noted by scholars as bearing similarities to "Dies Irae", a Gregorian chant about how bad it's gonna be when Jesus comes back and all the dead rise up. This chant gets invoked a lot in classical music when composers want to musically invoke the spooks.
After we've heard the first and second themes a couple of times, we'll hear the Devil's alarm clock again, and lo and behold more of the orchestra wakes up from the dead to join in! In the middle, you get a nifty little contrapuntal section around 1:58 (for an overview on counterpoint check out our post on Canon Fodder!) which I like to imagine as all the skeletons spinning off into their own little individual dances with their own contrapuntal line.
Like all parties, the dancing energy ebbs and flows at times but the Devil knows you gotta end on a high note and leads to a frenzy that is suddenly halted by the French horns (5:56)! The heroes of the orchestra herald the dawn, and a second later we hear the oboe sound the cockerel's crow which means...
The Devil's violin solo leads skeletons back to their graves for another 364-day nap and order is restored to the universe.
One of the coolest things about this piece is Saint-Saëns cool idea to use the xylophone to provide the sound of rattling bones. These days the xylophone is a common enough addition to an orchestra, but at the time it was such a rarity that Saint-Saëns wrote instructions on where to purchase the instrument into the score itself.
Later, when he wrote Carnival of the Animals, in the movement entitled "Fossils" he borrows Danse macabre's peppy first theme and gives it to the xylophone again.