Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre

The Danse Macabre (French for Dance Of Death) became a cultural symbol in late Medieval Europe.  Artists painted scenes of the dead escorting the living to the grave with a final dance of death.  The reality of a sudden and painful death were all too vivid after the horrors of the bubonic plague, the 'Black Death' epidemics of the 14th century.  It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of the total population of Europe perished in a four-year period.

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:

Zig, zig, zig, Death in 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.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I love this piece. The tonality, the playfully devilish mood, the fugue, the solos, and the "oh well" ending get me every time.

    I have fond memories of playing a watered-down transcription of this piece in middle school band. I'm sure it sounded wretched, but it was fun to be a clarinetist because the violin parts were played on clarinet. Saint-Saens always has a way of roping the listener in, even from the first few notes. It reminds me of Hindemith's Mathis der Mahler. The first few notes sound so similar.