Camille Saint-Saëns: Danse Macabre

So for this Listening Friday on a Listening Sunday, we're celebrating Halloween.  But fear not, this isn't Halloween 2014.  No, we're getting a jump on the box stores this year by skipping Thanksgiving and Christmas and setting up for next Halloween.

They'll never see that coming.

So, our listening today comes from an existentialist French guy with perfect pitch and a wonderful beard.  His name? Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921).

C'est magnifique!
He possessed an uncanny memory for piano literature and an early aptitude to composition and the piano.  Additionally, he grew to be a sort of Romantic-era Renaissance man, possessing and amassing a wide array of scholar-level knowledge about astronomy, mathematics, botany, archaeology, lepidoptery, and geology.

Saint-Saëns was also considered somewhat controversial in his earlier days as he trumpeted support for the likes of Wagner, Berlioz, and Liszt, but pretty much hated Debussy and Stravinsky.  Like many humans often do, he grew up embracing much more liberal forms of music than what was contemporary of his time (Mozart and Beethoven), but eventually as he grew old began to loathe and publicly revile the younger, up and coming composers for misusing the artform.  He claimed once that he stayed in Paris just to trash Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande.  Debussy reportedly responded thusly:

LOL You mad bro?
Despite this, Saint-Saëns is widely known for popularizing a musical concept that is still frequently employed today, albeit in much different varieties.  Being friends with Liszt allowed Saint-Saëns to become familiar with the idea of the tone poem, which is basically a symphonic work that is crafted to evoke imagery from a work of literature or art or something that's not music without visual aids.  Usually these works are single, relatively short pieces and creates a mental image for the listener.  

The piece we are exploring today is none other than Saint-Saëns' Danse Macabre.  It draws its roots from the poem, "Égalité, Fraternité..." by Henri Cazalis.  Click here for the text.  Basically, every Halloween at the stroke of midnight, Death comes out and raises hell with all his buddies until the rooster crows and sends everyone to their graves.

Lots of musical trickery is employed to evoke the imagery of goblins and ghouls rampaging across the European countryside, including a notable use of the xylophone to simulate the sounds the bones in skeletons might make.

Which Disney would later find useful.
Reception of the work was timid at best.  Many people were actually a bit unnerved at the use of the instruments to evoke such harsh imagery.  One of the more notable examples of treachery within the work is the usage of the "tri-tone" or augmented fourth/diminished fifth interval in the beginning with the solo violin.  To our Western inspired ears it sounds quite dissonant.  So harsh, in fact that it was prohibited from composition during the Middle Ages in religious music.  It is disputed, but many attribute the term, the "Devil's Interval" to the leap starting from this time period.

Without any further stalling for time, I give you Danse Macabre.  

Happy belated Halloween!

See you next Friday.


Buena Vista Pictures/Touchstone Pictures