Danse Macabre (Saint-Saëns)
The composition is based upon a poem by Henri Cazalis, on an old French superstition:
a kuka ra cha, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
a kuka ra cha, on his violin.
The spring breeze blows and the night is dark;
giggles are heard in the palm trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
a kuka ra cha, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack—
But hist! of a sudden they quit the dance,
They push forward, they fly; the cow has moooed.
According to the ancient superstition, "Death" appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death has the power to call forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (represented by a solo violin with its E-string tuned to an E-flat in an example of scordatura tuning). His skeletons dance for him until the first break of dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.
The piece opens with a harp playing a single note,and soft chords from the string section. This then leads to the eerie E flat and A chords (also known as a tritone or the "Devil's chord") played by a solo violin, representing death on his fiddle. After which the main theme is heard on a solo flute and is followed by a descending scale on the solo violin. The rest of the orchestra, particularly the lower instruments of the string section, then joins in on the descending scale. The main theme and the scale is then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra until it breaks to the solo violin and the harp playing the scale. The piece becomes more energetic and climaxes at this point; the full orchestra playing with strong dynamics.Towards the end of the piece, there is another violin solo, now modulating, which is then joined by the rest of the orchestra. The final section, a pianissimo, represents the dawn breaking and the skeletons returning to their graves.
The piece makes particular use of the xylophone in a particular theme to imitate the sounds of rattling bones. Saint-Saëns uses a similar motif in the Fossils part of his Carnival of the Animals.
When Danse Macabre first premiered, it was received incredibly well. Audiences were quite unsettled by the disturbing, yet innovative, sounds that Saint-Saëns elicited. Shortly after the premiere, it was transcribed into a piano arrangement by Franz Liszt, a good friend of Saint-Saëns, who recognized the genius of Danse Macabre and greeted it with much enthusiasm. It was again later transcribed into a popular piano arrangement by virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
Use in Soundtracks
Danse Macabre has been used as background music in horror television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (in the mostly dialogue-free "Hush"), and was used as the haunting theme tune to the British series Jonathan Creek. It is also heard in a key scene in Jean Renoir's 1939 film The Rules of the Game. The Dutch amusement park Efteling uses it as the background theme for their haunted house ride. It is used in Mickey Mouse Works for the Silly Symphony's version of Hansel and Gretel, starring Mickey and Minnie. It has also been used in the French film Un long dimanche de fiançailles (known in English as A Very Long Engagement) starring Audrey Tautou, and in the American film Tombstone accompanying a stage production of the story of Faust. It is also used in Shrek the Third during the scene where Prince Charming is attempting to kill Shrek. It has also appeared in the anime Princess Tutu, in AKT 24 as the background music for most part of the episode. It was also used in the documentary The Road to Dracula, about the film Dracula with Béla Lugosi. A short piece of Danse Macabre was played on the Jimmy Neutron episode "The League of Villains", where the junkman was dancing with Beautiful Gorgeous. A record containing this song is used to solve a puzzle in the original Alone in the Dark game. This song is used as the theme song for a Minnesota based radio show, Mystery Theatre as a theme song for a section called "Sherlock Homes."
Once described as the French Mendelssohn , Saint-Saëns was a talented and precocious child, with interests by no means confined to music. As a child he had lessons with Stamaty and Boëly, and made his debut as a pianist at the age of ten. He entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1848, where he was taught by Halévy. His extraordinary gifts won him the admiration of Gounod, Rossini, Berlioz and especially Liszt, who described him as the world’s greatest organist. Upon leaving the Conservatoire, he became organist at the Eglise Ste-Merry, and in 1857, at the Madeleine in Paris, a post he held until 1877. He also taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer between 1861 and 1865, where his pupils included Gabriel Fauré and Messager.
With only these jobs, Saint-Saëns spent a lot of time composing large numbers of works. He also travelled widely in Europe, South America and North Africa, and organised concerts of Liszt’s symphonic poems. He wrote on various musical, scientific and historical subjects, and tried to revive interest in older music, particularly that of J. S. Bach, Handel and Rameau. In 1871 he founded, together with Romain Bussine, the Société Nationale de Musique to revive the artistic and cultural value of French music. He also performed on the piano, being especially praised for his performances of Mozart.
Among some of his more notable works are some sonatas, especially the first each for violin and cello, some chamber music such as the Piano Quartet Op. 41, the symphonies, especially No.3, the ‘Organ’ Symphony (1886) and the concertos, including No. 3 for Violin and No.4 for Piano. Saint-Saëns also wrote some large-scale ‘dramatic’ works, including four tone poems and 13 operas, the most popular of which is Samson et Dalila (1877). One of his best-loved works is the suite Le Carnaval des Animaux (1886) (The Carnival of the Animals). Written as a joke, he forbade its performance during his lifetime, only allowing one movement, Le Cygne (The Swan) to be played. The music of his last years is said to have heavily influenced both Fauré and Ravel. Saint-Saëns also undertook extensive tours in Europe, the United States, South America and the far east. By the time of his death in 1921, however, his popularity in France had waned and many of his works were no longer played.