Tune of the Day: Danse macabre
The first version of this piece was a song composed in 1872 to a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis, which was based in an old French superstition. Saint-Saëns expanded this into the famous symphonic poem two years later.
According to the superstition, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death has the power to call forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle. His skeletons dance for him until the first break of dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.
The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times to signify the clock striking midnight. This then leads to the eerie E-flat and A chords played by a solo violin, representing death on his fiddle. After these “Devil chords” (due to its dissonant quality, the interval of a tritone has long been known as “the Devil in music”), the main theme is first heard on a solo flute.
The piece makes particular use of the xylophone to imitate the sounds of rattling bones. Saint-Saëns uses a similar motif in the Fossils part of his Carnival of the Animals.