Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre
The notion that death was the fate of all, as stated in the Latin motto that accompanied many of the artworks depicting the Dance of Death, Momento Mori (remember you will die) expresses the sentiment that no matter a person's position in society or station in life, our fate is the same. While the notion of death has been romanticized to a certain degree over the years and even trivialized in cartoons and videos, the Dance of Death was very real to people of earlier times.
Many composers based compositions on the Dance Of Death, most notably Hector Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique and Franz Liszt in his Totentanz for piano and orchestra. Both of these composers used the 13th century Latin Hymn Dies Irae in their compositions as does Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns' inspiration for his setting was a poem written by Henri Cazalis, a French poet that got the idea for the poem from French folk legend:
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.
Saint-Saëns wrote a version for voice and piano using Cazalis' poem in 1872, then wrote the orchestral version in 1874. It begins with the quiet tolling of midnight on the harp. Then Death is heard playing the Devil's Interval, the tritone dissonance of classical harmony, a diminished fifth, in this instance an A and an E-flat. Saint-Saëns instructs the solo violinist to tune his E string down to an E-flat to accomplish this. Saint-Saëns also uses the xylophone to depict the dancing skeletons. After much cavorting around, the oboe imitates the crowing of a rooster at dawn, the skeletons scurry back to their graves and Death ends his solo on the violin.