A Tritone Treat

Ready for this? Camille Saint-Saëns, born on this date in 1835, began composing less than a decade after the death of Franz Schubert, and only a smidge over that from the death of Beethoven. Yet this brilliant and prodigious composer lived to rebelliously storm out of the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913. His contemporaries were as much Pablo Picasso and Béla Bartók as they were Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. He was even one of the first composers to write music for film! With an intellect and musical prowess said by many to eclipse that of Mozart (yes, we know that’s controversial), Saint-Saëns is perhaps most famous for his Carnival of the Animals (1886), his Organ Symphony (1886), and the piece featured today: Danse macabre (1874).

Danse macabre” depicts the French legend known in English as “Dance of Death,” and it is a fitting choice for this composer’s October birthday. Hailing back to the Middle Ages, the dance was an artistic representation of the universality of death. It occurred one night of the year to the tune of the legendary Grim Reaper, who whips out his fiddle to initiate a dance for those who have gone before and those who still remain on the earth. The party gets started with the open fifths of the violin, although Death’s violin is tuned on the top to a jagged tritone, resulting in the A to E‑flat at the top. Dancing quickly ensues, taking off in the swirling hysteria of G minor. With frequent pulls to A‑flat, we might even interpret the mode as phrygian—the twisted cousin of the minor scale that lowers the second scale degree in addition to the third, sixth, and seventh. To imitate the pizzicato effect of the violin, “pluck” the staccato notes as short as possible, free of pedal.

Get spooky with your intermediate-level students this October. You’ll find this piece in BigTime Piano Classics Level 4, among other captivating arrangements of symphonic and operatic masterworks. Or simply download and play along with a virtual orchestra in the Piano Adventures Player® app for iOS.