Danse macabre, by Camille Saint-Saëns

The dance of death. Detail from an unidentified 18th-century oil painting

Camille Saint-Saëns was a prolific composer and acknowledged genius, but he is known today only for a fraction of his output. Today’s audiences enjoy one of his most enduring masterpieces, Danse macabre, for reasons that would have baffled Saint-Saëns’ own generation.

From the elderly Saint-Saëns’ scorn of Debussy and Stravinsky, it may appear that he was conservative and not open to new trends.

But from the start of his career, he allied himself with Liszt and other revolutionary composers. His four symphonic tone poems of the 1870s all explore Lisztian innovations. Danse macabre (1874) is the third of these. “Danse macabre” means “dance of death.”

The medieval tradition of the dance of death

Once, society made no attempt to hide death. What with plagues, murders, wars, and public executions, death remained very visible. And so did the eventual rotting of corpses.

In 1424, a fresco was painted in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris on the charnel house. It depicted a long procession of skeletons dancing with men of all levels of social standing. Whether pope or peasant, everyone dies.

This fresco soon led to a spate of other illustrations of skeletons dancing with people. They soon spread all over France, and from there to other European countries. The concept has continued to inspire artists. Saint-Saëns had ample opportunity to see contemporary artworks illustrating the dance of death, or in French, danse macabre.

The devil’s interval

Danse macabre, Wolgemut woodcut Saint-Saëns

Danse macabre / Michael Wolgemut, 1493

Saint-Saëns’ tone poem relies heavily for its effect on an interval known for centuries as diabolus in musica, the devil’s interval.

On the white keys of a piano, start on any note and play five notes in succession. In every case but one, the fifth note is three whole tones plus a half tone, or a perfect fifth away.

Play four notes in succession, in every case but one, the fourth note is two whole tones and a half, a perfect fourth. That is, every succession of four or five notes except one includes two notes half a tone apart.

The fifth from B to F has two pairs of notes half a step apart. The fourth from F to B has none. They comprise three whole tones, or a tritone. Medieval theorists named these two defective intervals, which both sound the same, the devil in music.

Guido d’Arezzo, who invented the first easy way to teach boys how to sing chant, built series of six notes on G, C, and F, but he had to invent a B-flat to avoid the devil and make the F “hexachord” useful.

In traditional tonality, as it developed four hundred years ago, the tritone lies buried in a chord called the “dominant seventh.” It creates harmonic tension that is relieved by resolving to notes within the tonic, or key note. Think of the devil enslaved, tamed, and forced to behave in a way that allows the music to proceed in an orderly fashion.

Composers have sometimes let the tritone stand alone, without properly resolving, for special effects. Saint-Saëns was certainly not the first, but it’s hard to think of a more blatant, intrusive sounding of the interval.

Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre

Danse macabre started as a song, composed in 1872 to a text by Henri Cazalis.

In 1874, Saint-Saëns transformed it to a tone poem. Solo violin takes over much of the voice part, but also some of the accompanimental figures. The devil’s interval figures prominently, as does the “Dies irae” from the Latin requiem mass. Many other Romantic composers used also it. The text depicts the horrors of judgment day. For additional jarring effect, Saint-Saëns also introduced the xylophone, a folk instrument, into the orchestra.

The piece begins with twelve repeated notes from the harp, signifying a clock striking midnight. The violin scratches out a series of imperfect fifths that do not resolve as they should in well-mannered tonal music. The devil is warming up to play a diabolical dance in a fast waltz time. The waltz had only lately become respectable.

The clattering of bare bones from the xylophone reminds the audience that the dead have joined the living in this dance. It whirls madly until the rooster crows (played by the oboe). The revelers shudder. The devil mournfully finishes his tune. The creatures of the night can’t bear sunlight, so they scurry away.

Liszt transcribed Danse macabre for piano solo and helped make it popular. But critics, especially those who hated Liszt’s music, immediately panned the new piece.

In his Danse Macabre, Saint-Saëns has succeeded in producing effects of the most horrible, hideous and disgusting sort. Among the special instruments in the score was the xylophone, the effect of which inevitably suggested (as doubtless intended) the clattering of the bones of skeletons.

Another, and scarcely less hideous device, was the tuning of the first string of the solo violin half a note lower than usual, and the reiteration of the imperfect fifth many times in succession.

The piece is one of many signs of the intense and coarse realism that is entering into much of the musical composition (so-called) of the day. Manufacture would be the more proper term; and, in some cases, very clumsy manufacture. – London Daily News, June 3, 1879


Saint-Saens / Slatkin – Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”; Danse macabre; Cypres et Lauriers/>

Danse macabre in modern times

Nowadays, most people don’t take the devil as seriously as earlier generations did. Certainly, he doesn’t automatically cause offense, as he used to. In the US anyway, Halloween, with all its witches and ghosts, has become one of the most popular of holidays.

Danse macabre has become one of a number of classical pieces associated with Halloween. Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is another.

From menacing and scary, Danse macabre has become a gateway piece to introduce schoolchildren to classical music. Here is a video PBS created in 1980 for use in elementary school music classes.

The piece has appeared numerous times within other media. For example

  • Jean Renoir used Danse macabre in his 1939 film La règle du jeu (The rules of the game), which likewise met controversy.
  • The 1997 BBC television show Jonathan Creek used it as its theme music.
  • It has been used for figure skating music in competition.
  • In the “Hush” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Giles plays a recording as he silently introduces the villains.
  • Jameson’s Irish Whiskey used it in a commercial.

The first of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, “The Skeleton Dance,” features dancing skeletons and, eventually, the sound of the xylophone. Disney probably wouldn’t have thought of either of these ideas if Danse macabre hadn’t already become popular. The cartoon appeared in 1929, and some movie houses refused to show it.

No one finds Danse macabre controversial or offensive today. And you don’t have to wait for Halloween to enjoy it.

A brief history of the ‘Danse macabre’ / Bethany Corriveau Gotschall, Atlas Obscura. October 22, 2017
Danse macabre: a brief history of Halloween’s haunting anthem / Andrea Warner, CBC music. October 30, 2017
Danse macabre, Camille Saint-Saëns / Joe Henken, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. no date
Lexicon of musical invective / Nicolas Slonimsky (New York: Norton, 2000. Originally published in 1953)
Saint-Saëns and his Danse macabre for Halloween / Cynthia Collins, CMuse. October 31, 2016

Photo credits:
18th-century oil painting. Some rights reserved by Eaglebrook School.
Wolgemut woodcut. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons

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