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Danse macabre, Op. 40

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Camillle Saint-Saëns
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano Thu., Jan. 22, 2004, 7:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Saint-Saëns was one of the numerous younger musicians who received significant encouragement and artistic support from Franz Liszt, and Liszt's influence is apparent in many of his works, in a number of ways. In his piano concertos, which he, like Liszt, wrote for his own use, he not only attained a Lisztian level of sheer brilliance but sometimes followed his senior colleague's example in straying from the conventional three-movement layout. In the orchestral realm, Liszt is credited with the "invention” of the symphonic poem: Saint-Saëns was the first Frenchman to take up that category, his contributions to which led in turn to the distinctively French genre of tone poem which includes works by Franck, Chausson, Duparc and Dukas. Like Liszt, Saint-Saëns began his chain of symphonic poems in his middle thirties, produced all of them (four, in his case) within less than a decade, and drew some of his material from his own earlier works in other forms. As if to validate Saint-Saëns's enterprise, Liszt himself made a virtuoso transcription of the Danse macabre shortly after this work's premiere in 1874.

The Danse macabre, the third of Saint-Saëns's four symphonic poems, has a title that is best left untranslated: such attempts as "Dance of Death” and "Ghosts' Dance” just don't work. The work must have had a very special appeal for Liszt, since he wrote several pieces in the same vein—and one with a similar title, based on the same theme. The broad waltz theme in the Danse macabre may be recognized as a variation on the Dies irae, the ancient liturgical chant for the dead, on which Liszt hased his Totentanz, for piano and orchestra. The "straight” form of the old chant never appears in the Saint-Saëns score.

While the Danse macabre is Saint-Saëns's most frequently performed orchestral work, it was not originally conceived in orchestral terms. Saint-Saëns, again in true Lisztian fashion, adapted itfrom one of his songs for voice and piano, a setting of a verse by Henri Cazalis, rendered in English as follows:

Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack—
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

The image of Death as a fiddler appears in the works of several composers, but in none is it more effective than in this piece. The orchestra strikes midnight, Death tunes up, then begins his waltz; a second theme on the xylophone evokes the skeletal celebrants, who become more and more energetic until, with the cock's crow, they disperse and vanish.