Saint-Saëns’ Dance of Death makes even the most fanatical classical music fans dream because of the beauty of its melody. But above all by its message and morality! You might be wondering what this music means and which instruments play the key roles in this composition?

Then welcome to Skull World! Death and all that has to do with it is our specialty. And we are happy to return today to one of the great classics of music history: the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns .

In this article we want to find out together what this extraordinary melody is all about. How the composer manages to make skeletons dance and the devil speak with the help of musical instruments. And most importantly, what is the moral of this story and how to use it for yourself. Let’s start right after listening to said piece of music:

Charles-Camille Saint-Saens

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns was a French composer of the second half of the 19th century. Saint-Saëns was considered a deeply traditional composer. His work is far more deeply rooted in the classical and romantic music that preceded him, and far less so in Impressionism and the modern classical music of the late 19th and early 20th. He is often regarded as one of the most important French composers of all time.

Danse macabre is one of the four-tone poems composed by Saint-Saëns in the 1870s, all to some extent inspired by examples from Franz Liszt(whose own Dance of Death dates from 1849) and explored both Liszt’s concept of thematic transformation and new instrumentation.

Saint-Saëns developed the song into a tonal poem in 1874, transcribing much of the singing voice of a solo violin and using the xylophone to represent the clashing bones of the skeleton. He also introduced the Dies irae , about halfway through, a Gregorian chant theme from the Requiem Mass that composers often refer to when evoking scenes of death and judgment.

Macabre Dance

What to remember about this music:

  • Composed in 1874
  • Duration: approx. 8 minutes
  • Orchestration: Flute piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone), harp and strings.
  • First performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on August 25, 1922

Camille Saint-Saëns was many things. He was a multifaceted scholar and writer, a great traveler and a versatile musician, distinguished as a keyboardist, composer, conductor, teacher and publisher. He lived in contempt for the works of Debussy and Stravinsky (amongst others) and is often viewed as a conservative, even reactionary, composer. Early and mid-career, however, Saint-Saëns championed the most progressive grand piano in contemporary music (including Schumann, Wagner and Liszt), and his own music was often highly original in form and orchestration.

Between his thirties and his mid-forties, Saint-Saëns wrote four symphonic poems. The third, written in 1874, was to become his most famous. It is of course the « Danse Macabre » that we are talking about today. The composer worked on the basis of a real poem, namely by Henri Cazalis .  Here is the text translated from English

under the name ”  Scordatura

“: Zig, zig, zig, Death to the beat,
Hitting a grave with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.

The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
A moan is heard in the linden trees.
In the dark, white skeletons walk by,
running and jumping in their shrouds.

Zig, zag, zig, everyone searched.
You can hear the dancers’ bones cracking.
But his! suddenly they are out of the dance,
they push, they fly, the rooster has crowed.

The composer captured the rattle of bones and devilish playfulness of the poem so well that “Danse macabre” was initially rejected by audiences for being too dark and demonic . 😈 But time has shown that this criticism was laughable. Danse macabre has since become the composer’s most-performed work.

painting dance of death

Importance of « Danse Macabre » music

In Saint-Saëns’ evocative setting, the solo violin represents the devil playing his fiddle to the dance. In an intramusical joke, the top string of the violin is deliberately detuned by half a step to a tritone, also known as the “devil interval”. In the context of the soloist’s challenge, this means that the soloist must retune all notes on that string. In today’s performance, our solo violin is the “devil of the day”! 👹

The dance begins with the stroke of midnight (perhaps on Halloween) in a graveyard . He’s not with the Day of the Deadto confuse. Listen for the 12 beats of the distant bell, softly played along with the harp from the start. The skeletal dancers are represented by the frail, bony sounds of the xylophone mimicking the violin in response to its theme. Soon the skeletons rise from their graves and begin dancing to the devil’s supernatural tune. The skeleton dancers are represented by the fragile, bony sounds of the xylophone.

A solo flute takes the lead in the melody, the first and second themes being passed to different parts of the orchestra. The music gets more energetic as each section takes up the different themes. The woodwinds quote the Dies Irae (a melody from the traditional Requiem for the “Day of Wrath,” often used in musical personifications of “Death”), played lightly by the woodwinds and harp for about two and a half minutes in a major key is played. They enjoy dancing, which adds to the foreboding character of the piece. 💃

The orchestra reunites at the climax of the piece, with the solo violinconstantly playing slightly above him to keep the melody moving. There is a quick and abrupt break in texture before it begins to build up again. The section of the coda represents the breaking of dawn, with the oboe representing a cockcrow. The skeletons return to their graves quickly – see you next year!

The devil does his work and the frantic, unbridled dance picks up speed until it comes to an abrupt end and we hear the cockcrow (hear the oboe). The night is almost over, the morning comes and everyone rushes down to avoid the light of the coming sun, while the devil sadly finishes his melody and runs away.

Legend of the Dance of Death 

According to legend, Death appears at midnight on Halloween and calls the dead to dance for him while he plays the fiddle. She is represented by Saint-Saëns’ detuned solo violin. The story follows the skeleton’s dance until dawn, and the graves are filled again for another year. This quintessential Halloween tale is still told around the world today, and Saint-Saëns’ work is a musical representation of it.

Saint-Saëns used the xylophone melody of the Danse Macabre as a parody in his later work,  The Carnival of the Animals« , the theme of which is taken up again in the sentence « Fossils ». The music of the Danse Macabre represents darkness, skeletons, wind, graves and much more, making it a glorious Halloween treat!

It is considered a sound poem , meaning it tells a story or fairy tale through the music itself. Different instruments represent different characters, the fiddle is the devil, the oboe is a raven, and the xylophone is a beating bone. Danse macabre is based on an old medieval allegory about the “danse macabre” which was basically a “dance” that everyone knew because everyone would die one day.

Dance of the Skeletons

Morale of the Totentanzes

An emperor, a beggar, a monk, a mother, a musician… No matter what position we hold in life, the dance of death unites us all. Can we living ones dance with the same unbridled zeal as these white skeletons that roam the darkness? How fragile is life, how futile is its earthly glory? ☠️

With liveliness and verve, the author describes the fantastic fairy tale of the frenetic dance of death. The musical material of Saint-Saëns’ Totentanz proved ideal for multiple piano arrangements and to date we have created no fewer than seven different compositions from the original score. In all iterations we harness the potential of the piano, illustrating atmosphere through swirling harmonic figurations and clinking bones through rhythms and percussive effects.

In this story, skeletons accompany the living people in a lively waltz to their graves. Kings, knights, and commoners join them to make it clear that death comes for everyone, regardless of status, wealth, or lifetime achievement. At a time when the Black Death epidemics and the seemingly endless battles between France and England in the Hundred Years’ War claimed thousands of lives, macabre imagery such as the Dance of Death was a means of dealing with the ever-present prospect of mortality. 💀

The morality of the Dance of Death depicts how death is the great social leveler , for no one escapes the dance with death. And there are a number of paintings and works of art inspired by this philosophy.

Defy the laws of the Dance of Death by decorating your home with a “”skull and crossbones image”” .

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read our guide to Mexican skulls !