Camille Saint-Saëns, “Danse Macabre – Symphonic Poem Op.40”

According to legend, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance their dance of death for him while he plays his fiddle represented by a solo violin with its E-string tuned to an E-flat in an example of scordatura tuning. His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.

The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. This then leads to the E flat and A chords also known as a tritone or the “Devil’s chord”, and the solo violin’s E string is tuned a half step lower to create this effect played by a solo violinist, which represents death. After which the main theme is heard on a solo flute and is followed by a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section, particularly the lower instruments of the string section, followed by the full orchestra who then joins in on the descending scale. The main theme and the scale is then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra until it breaks to the solo violin and the harp playing the scale. The piece becomes more energetic and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Towards the end of the piece, there is another violin solo, now in modulation, which is then joined by the rest of the orchestra. The final section represents the dawn breaking and the skeletons returning to their graves.

The piece makes particular use of the xylophone to imitate the sounds of rattling bones. Saint-Saëns uses a similar motif in the Fossils movement of The Carnival of the Animals.

I’m always happy when the Wikipedia pages for certain pieces of music are well-written and informative, I end up with a whole other level of appreciation for it. The Danse Macabre is awesome enough on its own, but the extra little facts are really worth reading.

The clock strikes midnight, so you know what that means. Time for the dead to dance once more.

Nicholas Ray

nr

Nicholas Ray was a director and he wore an eyepatch. He was one of the most important and artistic directors in Hollywood’s lull of the 50s. A favourite of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, an idol and mentor of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, many of his films had a massive impact on our conception of 50s cool, such as Knock On Any Door and Rebel Without a Cause. His pictures In A Lonely Place and Knock On Any Door were major components of Humphrey Bogart’s cult following in the 50s and 60s. His Rebel Without A Cause is arguably the most important James Dean film. Others, Johnny Guitar in particular, were a really big deal in France. Speaking of Johnny Guitar, it, The Searchers and Rio Bravo are basically the only truly important 50s westerns.

A consistent and open user of illicit drugs, he was shunned by Hollywood in the early 60s. His career went off the rails in many ways, but after a 10 year hiatus, in the early 70s he began the most experimental part of his career. He began the experimental film “We Can’t Go Home Again” with his students (he taught filmmaking at Binghamton Uni, NY) in 1973, and made the documentary Lightning Over Water with Wim Wenders. He continued to edit We Can’t Go Home Again until his death in 1979.

“There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”

—Jean-Luc Godard, 1958.