Danse Macabre: The Background

The Background and the Story

Dance Macabre is an orchestral tone poem, similar to a program symphony in that the musical events follow a specific narrative idea or set of images. Camille Saint-Saens composed many programmatic pieces, including the much-loved Carnival of the Animals. The inspiration for Danse Macabre was a poem, by Henri Cazalis, based upon an old French superstition.

According to the ancient 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 (violin). The dead, skeletons, dance for him until the first break of dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.

Apparently, when Danse Macabre first premiered, it was not greeted with praise and appreciative audiences. In fact, the audiences were quite unsettled by the disturbing, though very innovative, sounds that Saint-Saens elicited from the orchestra. A story, that circulated through Paris at the time, was that Saint-Saen’s own mother fainted from fright at the first performance of Danse Macabre!

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