What is the story of Danse Macabre?
If you're on this page, you're probably a classical music fanatic. Do you know the dance of death of Saint-Saëns? Of course, I do, what a question 😌! But do you know everything about it? Do you see the message and the meaning of the composition? How many instruments are used to compose this marvel?
Welcome to Skull Action, the place where skull enthusiasts do everything to offer you quality content. Death is an incredibly exciting subject, and today we will talk in detail about a great classic in music: The Dance of Death by Saint-Saëns.
We will see together what this great melody represents. The way the composer manages to make skeletons dance and make the devil speaks through musical instruments. And above all, you’ll discover the moral behind this macabre story.
We invite you to open the song on another tab to embellish your reading. Click on the link below, and let’s go!
Who is Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns?
Born on October 9, 1835, in Paris, Camille Saint-Saëns learns piano with his relative 🎹, Charlotte Masson, then with Camille Stamaty, a pupil of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. At only 11 years old (May 6, 1846), the little virtuoso publicly performed pieces by Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. He entered the Conservatory two years later. In 1851, at the age of 16, Saint-Saëns, who thus had a sixth sense for music, was awarded the First Prize for organ.
At the age of 18, he was appointed titular organist at the Saint-Merri church (Paris) and premiered his First Symphony. He quickly acquired an excellent reputation and won the friendships of Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt. They saw in him an incomparable organist. In 1857, he left Saint-Merri for the Madeleine.
In 1871, after the bitter French defeat at the hands of the Prussian armies, Saint-Saëns and other French composers (César Franck, Jules Massenet,...) created the national society of music to encourage their fellow countrymen and to "counter" German music. Saint-Saëns will leave this society in 1886 because he refuses to introduce works by foreign composers as suggested by Vincent d'Indy.
In 1875, Saint-Saëns married Marie Truffot (from whom he separated in 1881). They will have two sons who will, unfortunately, die in infancy. During the year 1876, he devotes himself to composition and resigns from the organ of the Madeleine; however, he still gives concerts. His fame is such that in Dieppe, where he resides, a museum in his honor was founded during his lifetime in 1890. Even if the new generations (Achille Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel) eclipse his influence, he remains very played. In 1913, he was decorated with the highest "level" of the Legion of Honor.
He was active until his death on December 16, 1921, in Algiers, where he had come to spend the winter: 86 years old! He is buried with great pomp in the Madeleine church. He held the organ and delighted the listeners with his improvisations for 20 years.
He composes a lot and quickly with writing that is at the same time scholarly and elegant.
He creates in all genres. He was the first French composer to compose symphonic poems, including La danse macabre.
His 3rd Symphony with the organ is part of the post-romantic taste for gigantism (simultaneously, the Eiffel Tower was built): never before had an organ been introduced in a symphony. Of his thirteen operas, only Samson et Dalila is still represented.
The Meaning Of Dance Macabre
In the evocative setting of Saint-Saëns, the solo violin represents the devil playing his instrument for the dance. In an inner musical joke, the violin’s upper string is deliberately out of tune by half a step on a tritone, called "devil's interval.” In the challenge to the soloist, the soloist must readjust all the string’s notes 🎻.
The dance begins at the stroke of midnight in a cemetery. Listen to the 12 blows of the distant bell that resounds softly with the harp from the beginning. The skeletal dancers are represented by the xylophone’s fragile and bony sounds, which mimic the violin's response to its theme. Soon the skeletons come out of their graves and begin to dance to the supernatural air of the devil 👹.
The most magical part of the work is when the violin soloist plays lightly above to maintain a sustained melody. At this precise moment, a pronounced break gives way to a decreasing rhythm to represent the dawn. The oboe refers to the crowing of the rooster early in the morning; at this moment, when darkness gives way to the light of day, the skeletons return to their graves to rest after this feast until next year.
The symphony is frantic as the daylight becomes more intense, the devil flees, and the night-long party comes to an end. The melody seems to remind us that the devil cannot work in full light. You can enjoy this magnificent symphony played by an orchestra on the link below.
The legendary dance of death
A legend tells that on Halloween night at midnight, death appears in a dark outfit to invite the dead to dance to her musical composition. Death plays on an old violin, Saint-Saëns takes up this legend by playing on his out of tune violin. Far from his intention to embody death, his musical work’s beauty lies in the retranscription of a tale on musical instruments 🎵.
Saint-Saëns used the xylophone melody of the Danse Macabre as a parody in his later work, The Carnival of the Animals, whose theme is taken up in the "Fossils" movement. The music of Danse Macabre is representative of darkness, skeletons, wind, graves, and much more, the perfect symphony for Halloween.
Sound poems are a kind of fable told musically. Saint-Saëns’ work is considered one of the most beautiful sound poems. The musical piece involves several instruments that represent characters. The violin refers to the devil; the oboe means a raven, and the xylophone a skeleton ☠️.
In the Middle Ages, the dance of death was widespread; people accepted death better than we do nowadays. In many cultures, people danced the dance of death because we will simply all die one day.
What is the Morality of the Dance of Death?
You are probably wondering what such a marvel can bring us as a lesson to remember? The answer is simple, but not simplistic! Whatever our life mission, our situation, our age, or our profession, we are all united by death. Our souls will go to the heavens, and our skeletons will stay on earth to dance the night of Halloween :D
We all know that we are going to die. Still, we don't realize it. The macabre dance reminds us of this reality with a joyful tone. The dance continues even after death. Is this true? Only the dead know it. Let's accept death as an integral part of our life; let’s see it as the night of sleep after a beautiful day fully lived.
Now that you have become an expert in the Macabre dance, you will be able to introduce this work of the great Saint-Saëns to your loved ones. You can explain the composer’s life, the path of the symphony with the different characters, and finally, the deep meaning of this melody.