Dance Macabre

In 1851, Camille Saint-Saëns met Franz Liszt for the first time. That meeting proved fateful and marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship. It was Liszt, as the creator of the programmatic tone poem, who sparked Saint-Saëns’ interest in it. Later on, R. Strauss, A. Schoenberg, O. Respighi, B. Smetana, A. Dvořák, B. Bartók, J. Sibelius would venture on this path.

Saint-Saëns turned to the tone poem more than two decades after Liszt. Between 1871 and 1876, he wrote four tone poems: ‘Le Rouet d’Omphale (The Spinning Wheel of Omphale ), based on a mythology, ‘Phaeton’, Danse macabre (Op. 40, 1874) and La Jeunesse d’Hercule (The Youth of Hercules). In them Saint-Saëns naturally distinguished himself from Liszt in order to follow the strong tendencies of Berlioz’s programmatic symphonism. The theme of death is deeply rooted in philosophical and artistic thinking: from Plato and Aristotle, through M. Montaigne, G.Bruno, R. Descartes, F. Bakon, M. Foucault, A. Schopenhauer, G. Hegel, to S. Kierkegaard, F. Nietzsche, M. Heidegger, S. Freud. The theme in music is particularly dramatic in Beethoven’s life and artistic biography, in his personal struggle with the notion of death and overcoming it.

Naturally, in Saint-Saëns’s life the subject was also provoked by life circumstances: in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War began, in which the composer was mobilised as a private soldier. His first thoughts about the end permeate the romances of the Mélodies persanes cycle (Persian Night, Lonely, Sabre in Hand, In the Cemetery). The composer was devastated by the loss of his close friend Henri Rainier in the war, and shortly afterwards by the death of his relative Charlotte Mason, whom he owed his upbringing to at an early age.

The tone poem “Danse Macabre” has an artistic background. In 1873, a year before the poem was composed, Saint-Saëns wrote a song with the same title, from where he subsequently transferred thematic material to the orchestral opus in 1874. The lyrics are by Henri Cazalis, a French poet, decadent Symbolist known by his pen name Jean Lahor. The verses draw a picture of a cold winter’s night in a graveyard where skeletons dance to the sound of Death’s violin, the picture melting into the sunny morning and the sound of first roosters.

The composer used the full text of the poem in the romance, retaining the strophic principle but building on it with a three-stage form, with refrain and instrumental episodes. This three-stage form became the basis of the symphonic work. The penetration of strophic structures into the symphonic form produced an unexpected result for the classical tradition: the usual presence of the sonata form was displaced, double variant expositions and choral patterns appeared. So it went with Saint-Saëns, and so it subsequently went with Gustav Mahler.

Sonically, Saint-Saëns has inventions: in the first place, he introduced a xylophone to represent the dancing skeletons; and, in addition, he tuned Death’s violin for symbolism and sound colour not to the usual interval of pure fifth but to a diminished one.

The premiere and performance of the tone poem Dance macabre brought together very different opinions. The Paris premiere on January 24 1875 was a success and was even repeated. But only a year and a half later, at another performance, the audience booed it. In December 1875 Saint-Saëns visited Russia, where he personally conducted the work. César Cui drew a comparison between Saint-Saëns’s and Liszt’s poems of the same name: “Liszt looks at the subject too seriously, deeply, with mysticism, with the unwavering faith of the Middle Ages. M. de Saint-Saëns, being French, looks at the task with lightness, with jest, half-comically, sceptically, and with the negation of the nineteenth century.” And while Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui still liked the work and called it “lovely, graceful, talented, musical”, Mussorgsky described it as “a chamber miniature in which the composer expresses through orchestral richness small thoughts suggested by small verse”. Stasov held a similar view: ‘The orchestral piece, though adorned with exquisite and piquant modern orchestration, is small, like a candy, and above all, “salon” and frivolous’. Liszt, however, had a high opinion of Saint-Saëns’s poem and made a piano transcription of it in 1876.

Sadly, the theme of death returns to Saint-Saëns’ life. In 1877 a great admirer of his, Albert Libon, passed away and left him 100,000 francs in order to devote himself entirely to composition. But just the following year his two sons died one after another, pushing Saint-Saëns towards a new artistic conception of tragedy in works such as the Requiem (Op. 54, 1878) and the Symphony No. 3 with Organ (Op. 78, 1886). Catharsis, enlightenment and transformation overcame the apocalypse and set a new beginning.


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