Danse Macabre

by Camille Saint-Saëns
transcribed for two pianos by Greg Anderson

Danse macabre, the third of Saint-Saëns’s four symphonic poems, was premiered in 1874. The broad waltz theme in the Danse macabre may be recognized as a variation on theDies Irae, the ancient liturgical chant for the dead. While the Danse macabre is Saint-Saëns’s most frequently performed orchestral work, it was not originally conceived in orchestral terms. Saint-Saëns adapted it from one of his songs for voice and piano. The song was originally set to a verse by French poet Henri Cazalis (translated in English below):

Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence, 
Striking with his heel a tomb, 
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune, 
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin. 
The winter wind blows and the night is dark; 
Moans are heard in the linden trees. 
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass, 
Running and leaping in their shrouds. 
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking, 
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack— 
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round, 
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

With vividness and verve, Saint-Saëns depicts the fantastic tale of Death’s frenzied dance. The work begins with the tolling of midnight bells, after which Death, portrayed as a fiddler, tunes up and commences his waltz. A second theme evokes the roused skeletal celebrants who become increasingly energetic until, with the cock's crow, they disperse and vanish.

The musical material in Danse macabre proved to be ideal for a two-piano version. In our transcription, the pianists enact the characters of Death and his gathering of skeletons whirling around a graveyard. We exploit the capabilities of the piano, illustrating the rattling of bones with percussive rhythmic drive and creating atmospheric effects through deft uses of pedal and swirling harmonic figurations.

© 2002 Anderson & Roe. All Rights Reserved.