Camille Saint-Saens

Danse Macabre, by Camille Saint-Saens

Excerpt from Danse Macabre by Gerald Elias

"Zig, Zig, Zig—hark! Death beats a measure,
Drums on a tomb with heels hard and thin.
Death plays at night a dance for his pleasure—
Zig, Zig, Zig—on his old violin.
What are those moans from the lindens betiding?
Dark is the night, and the wind bloweth keen.
Skeletons pallid come out of their hiding,
To dance in their shrouds over tombstone and green.
Zig, Zig, Zig—how they jostle each other!
List to the rattling of bones as they dance!
But hush! In a twinkling the dancing is over,
Each strives to be foremost—the cock he hath crowed."


Music from Danse Macabre
Saint-Saens Danse Macabre

Camille Saint-Saens - Danse Macabre
performed by Gerald Elias and Jason Hardink


It's hard to imagine the Devil playing an instrument other than the violin.  Somehow, a flute or a guitar just doesn’t seem to cut it with El Diablo.  And assuming the Devil existed before the advent of the violin in the 16th century, I wonder what instrument tickled his fancy.   Maybe there was no Devil until the violin.

Many composers, from Tartini to Stravinsky, have portrayed the Devil playing the violin.  Right in the middle of this chronology is Camille Saint-Saens, whose tone poem “Danse Macabre,” disturbed its first audiences in 1874.  Based upon the French superstition that Death arrives at midnight on Halloween, the piece—here in Saint Saens’ own arrangement for violin and piano—begins with the single note, D, plucked twelve times to represent the chiming of church bells at midnight.

There follows the Devil tuning the strings of his fiddle not to the traditional perfect fifth, A and E, but to the diminished fifth, A and E-flat, the interval also known as the tritone, or more poetically the “Devil’s chord,” because of its ominous harmonic implications, and because the three whole tones of which it is comprised represents the Devil’s three-pronged pitchfork.

Once he’s tuned up, the Devil begins a diabolical walz—note the irony of a dance intended for gaity usurped by the Devil for his own purposes.  As it leads to its furious climax, the walz combines with the medieval chant Dies Irae, or Day of Wrath, when all who have sinned will be brought to their reckoning.  Finally, at the peak of its frenzy, the dance is broken off by a cock crowing, signifying dawn, at which point the skeletal spirits are compelled to return to their graves and the Devil puts his fiddle back into his case.
Though the violin has only been around for about five hundred years, the Dance of Death goes back to at least the middle ages as an allegory, that no matter upon what station in life one has danced, or may wish to dance, death awaits us all.  This is the story of my book, Danse Macabre.