• Kate

La Danse Macabre

Chances are, you've heard Camille Saint-Saëns's unforgettable tone poem "La Danse Macabre" somewhere, even you don't know it. Since its composition in 1872, this spooky favorite has been widely featured throughout film, tv, and pop culture: You may have heard it in the silent film "Häxan," in Jean Renoir's acerbic masterpiece "La Règle du Jeu," or in the lighthearted TV series "What We Do in the Shadows." But did you know that La Danse Macabre was originally written for voice and piano? It's a musical setting of a poem by Henry Cazalis, a symbolist with a penchant for all things gloomy. The poem recounts the familiar superstition that on Halloween at the stroke of midnight, Death calls forth the departed from their graves, and they dance to his fiddle until the cockerel's call at first light. Cazalis highlights Death as the great equalizer, both peasant and king alike dancing to Death's tune and returning to the other world side by side.

So far, I have found no compelling English translation. But this one I found floating on the internet without attribution will have to do, which I cleaned up a little for clarity:

Saint-Saëns reworked the piece in 1874 for orchestra, which is the version most of us have heard. As with his Le carnaval des animaux (Carnival of the Animals), which we frequently play for children to teach them about music, La Danse Macabre is a picture painted with sound, and each instrument helps tell the story: The harp plays 12 single notes, counting down 12 strokes till midnight. The solo violin enters as Death with his fiddle, playing a dissonant tritone, the infamous "Devil's chord" banned in medieval music and familiar to metal aficionados the world over. In this case, it's an A and an E♭, with the violinist's E string tuned down to achieve the tone. The xylophone conjures up images of rattling bones as the skeletons dance. A direct quote from Dies irae is played by the woodwinds. After a melodramatic and frenetic climax, the oboe plays the cockerel's call, signaling dawn and the return of the dead to their graves... Until next year that is!

The real reason I wrote this post was to show off this spectacular advertisement from the Estey Organ Company, which cites La Danse Macabre as an example of their instrument's capabilities and range.

During my years at Bennington College, I loved to take trips with friends down to Brattleboro, and I know just where the Estey Organ Company had been- It's now an organ museum! I don't often buy advertising items for my collection, but I fell in love with this one's dreamy illustrations, its beautiful explication of one of my favorite pieces of music, and the happy memories of my college years it inspires.

I knew somewhere in the back of the dusty, overcrowded vault of my brain that Saint-Saëns had composed a version for four hands and organ but it had never actually occurred to me to seek out a recording before. A spooky song on an even spookier instrument? I think it's a bit too on-the-nose for my taste.

You may be wondering if I have a favorite recording of La Danse Macabre, and of course the answer is yes. It's this one from 1981, with Charles Dutoit conducting London's Philharmonia Orchestra with Kyung-Wha Chung playing lead violin.

I'm never pleased when this piece is played too slowly: It's not something that should drag, but most of the recordings out there have a problem with pacing. La Danse Macabre has been performed and recorded so many times, sometimes the musicians seem to be just going through the motions, but Dutoit's take is quick, colorful, and exuberant. Every stroke of Chung's violin on those first, dissonant notes is like the swing of Death's scythe. Her interpretation is full of nuance- her violin knows when to swagger and seduce, and when to waltz and enchant. And hats off to the percussion section that drives the piece's stunning climax. If you gave this a listen, let me know in the comments what you think! Do you have a favorite recording of La Danse Macabre?

Wishing a Happy Halloween and Blessed Samhain to all! I hope you all are enjoying the weekend safely and to the best of your ability, under the circumstances. As for me, I'm curling up at home with my crate of Halloween chocolates from L. A. Burdick and bingewatching horror movies.


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