Danse macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra, written in 1874 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It started out in 1872 as an art song for voice and piano with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis, which is based on an old French superstition. In 1874, the composer expanded and reworked the piece into a tone poem, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin.
With a title that includes the word “macabre”, you can tell it’s a great piece for Halloween. This is by far the most famous work associated with the holiday, and with good reason. It is a tone poem inspired by a French legend that says “Death” appears at midnight on Halloween to call forth the dead from their graves to dance for him. He plays the fiddle while skeletons dance until dawn.
Get a free copy of the sheet music at IMSLP (Look for Arrangements and Transcriptions) or borrow a copy from the O’Connor Music Studio. I have this arranged for organ, piano, duet, simplified…
Amazon has a great Dover edition for solo piano. This splendid compilation features a variety of the composer’s best piano works, all reproduced from authoritative sources. Taking its title from the popular orchestral work “Danse Macabre” (presented here in the brilliant arrangement by Liszt), this collection also includes “Allegro appassionato,” “Album” (consisting of six pieces), “Rhapsodie d’Auvergne,” “Theme and Variations,” plus six etudes, three waltzes, and six etudes for left hand alone.
The final movement is the best known part of the symphony, thanks to its use in the Julia Roberts movie, Sleeping With The Enemy. It features a four-part structure, which Hector Berlioz described in his own program notes from 1845 as follows:
“He sees himself at a witches’ Sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the Sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.”
The Dies irae melody is one of the most-quoted in musical literature, appearing in the works of many diverse composers.
The traditional Gregorian melody has also been used as a theme or musical quotation in a number of classical compositions, notable among them:
Franz Liszt was born in Raiding, near Ödenburg, October 22, 1811 and died in Bayreuth, July 31, 1886. He was a Hungarian composer and pianist who was a major influence during the romantic period. Liszt was an outstanding pianist at seven, composed at eight and made concert appearances at nine. In addition to being a piano virtuoso, he was also a critic, conductor, city music director, literary writer and transcriber of the works of other composers. He transcribed Beethoven’s Symphonies for the piano.
Franz Liszt began his career as the outstanding concert pianist of the century, who, along with the prodigious violinist Niccoló Paganini (1782-1840), created the cult of the modern instrumental virtuoso. To show off his phenomenal and unprecedented technique, Liszt composed a great deal of music designed specifically for this purpose, resulting in a vast amount of piano literature laden with dazzling, and other technical marvels. In this vein, Liszt composed a series of virtuosic rhapsodies on Hungarian gypsy melodies, the best-known being the all too familiar Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2. Liszt developed the rhapsody as a form of serious music. This kind of music is worlds apart from the generally more introspective, poetic music of pianist-composer Frédéric Chopin.
Liszt was wildly handsome and hugely talented. He was extremely popular in Paris during the 1830’s. It is said that women actually fainted at his piano recitals. He was the first to position the piano so that its lid reflected the sound and the audience could see his profile as he performed.
Liszt was the first to write a tone poem, which is an extended, single-movement work for orchestra, inspired by paintings, plays, poems or other literary or visual works, and attempting to convey the ideas expressed in those media through music. Such a work is Les Préludes, based on a poem in which life is expressed as a series of struggles, passions, and mysteries, all serving as a mere prelude to . . .what? The Romantic genre of the symphonic poem, as well as its cousin the concert overture, became very attractive to many later composers, including Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss.
Modest Mussorgsky composed this multi-movement work in memory of his friend, artist Viktor Hartmann. Each movement corresponds to a picture in Hartmann’s gallery, with one pairing with Hartmann’s Paris catacombs. The painting depicts Hartmann and two other men walking through the labyrinthine catacombs, illuminated only by lamplight.
The movement is in two distinct parts. Its two sections consist of a nearly static Largo consisting of a sequence of block chords with elegiac lines adding a touch of melancholy and a more flowing, gloomy Andante that introduces the Promenade theme into the scene.
The first section’s alternating loud and soft chords evoke the grandeur, stillness, and echo of the catacombs. The second section suggests a merging of observer and scene as the observer descends into the catacombs. Mussorgsky’s manuscript of “Catacombs” (shown right) displays two pencilled notes, in Russian: “NB – Latin text: With the dead in a dead language” and, along the right margin, “Well may it be in Latin! The creative spirit of the dead Hartmann leads me towards the skulls, invokes them; the skulls begin to glow softly.”
Nearly everyone can figure out the first 2 notes to this spooky piece – just play the B and C notes really low on your keyboard! It doesn’t seem logical that just two notes could cause such a sense of foreboding, but John Williams managed it. His soundtrack to Spielberg’s Jaws has been keeping people out of the sea since 1975. This piece is available in Halloween Favorites (Big-note Piano) and many others.
From the movie:
John Williams conducts his theme from Jaws with the Boston Pops Orchestra at Tanglewood.
Students always find this piece fun with its finger snaps. There are three versions in Piano Maestro and it’s in several piano books including Halloween Songbook (Easy Piano). There was a a new Addams Family animated movie out in 2019, so your students are going to be snapping all over the place when this Halloween rolls around.
Today, since it’s a “teaching day”, I’m thankful for my piano studio, my students, and my pianos 🙂
When I was growing up, my dad was a minister, meaning we lived in whatever parsonage the church chose to let us live in. The one we had in Pawcatuck, CT had an upright piano that someone had put out in the sunroom. Not the best place for a piano, but I digress.
Since we had the piano already, someone – probably my mom – decided that I would take lessons. We had the organist from the Baptist church just across the river in Westerly, RI
Apparently, Clara Pashley was fondly remembered at the church (now Central Baptist Church) since she was mentioned in an article from 2010.
Miss Pashley walked to our house each week and taught me (and my mom who was always listening in) piano for the grand sum of 25 cents.
I started with Ada Richter’s classic Teaching Little Fingers to Play, which has now been morphed into the John Thompson library.
From there, it was the Michael Aaron series, and some sheet music.
There was no music store in our town, so I have no idea where any of this music came from – but I still have it all.
My parents did very well for their quarter a week investment, especially since my mom paid good attention and was able to beef up lessons she’d had as a child. Later on, she played well enough that she was church organist for a local Roman Catholic Church.
But I digress…
In those days, kids couldn’t do a whole lot of activities, so in 6th grade, I decided I wanted to be a Girl Scout. Bye, bye Clara.
Girl Scouts didn’t last long but I did play piano in a talent show. I remember, I carefully cut Burgmüller’s Ballade out of my Michael Aaron book and made a nice construction paper cover. (I still have this, too)
I doubt that I played this well but here’s what it was supposed to sound like:
A few years intervened and we moved to Springfield, MA. The parsonage piano there was in terrible shape and in the dark, never-used basement. But I decided to make it mine and cleared up the area around it and started “practicing”.
My Junior or Senior year of High School I decided I wanted to major in music in college. I decided to learn, on my own, a piano arrangement of Aragonnaise by Jules Massenet. I have no idea why or where that sheet music came from but I started working furiously on this piece.
Hopefully, at some point, it should have sounded like this:
I started pedaling (no pun intended!) my music to the Universities of Connecticut and Massachusetts and ended up at UMass Amherst since we were state residents.
Early morning gym classes (usually swimming), then wet hair traipsing across campus to music theory in winter 5 days a week. AARRGGH!
But I stuck it out.
My wonderful piano teacher, Howard Lebow, was killed in a car accident my sophomore year and I was devastated. There was about him in a post on January 26, 2018 here: https://oconnormusicstudio.com
I took yet another break from piano lessons – but I kept playing.
After DH graduated, we moved to Milwaukee, WI for his graduate school. Besides working 2 jobs, I found time to commandeer the practice rooms at the University of Wisconsin. I also found a teacher at the Schaum School of Music. She was amazed that I had no piano at home to practice on.
When we later moved to Alexandria, VA my DH gave me a choice of new car or piano. So, I found a used piano. The owner had acquired it in a divorce and wanted it gone. Yesterday. She even paid to move it out of her apartment.
The new-to-me piano took up half our living room. When my parents came to visit, their feet were under my piano as they slept on cots.
I found yet another new piano teacher and she is still my best friend to this day.
That piano moved to several locations before I bought a brand new Yamaha grand piano. The movers accidentally brought in the wrong one and I made them return it. The people who lived in an apartment were probably unhappy when they had to return my piano and take their own new baby grand back.
I started teaching as a traveling piano teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland. I continued that in Wilmington, DE.
When we got to Fairfax, VA I decided no more traveling. Students would come to me. And so they have since 1973.
What is supposed to be our living room is filled with music books, electric keyboards, the grand piano, 2 organs, 2 violins, 2 clarinets, a hand-made (by me!) dulcimer, tenor and soprano recorders, and other musical “stuff”.
Piano playing has gotten me through the worst times of my life. Teaching has been a lifeline for me, as well.
I am so thankful for the students who have stayed with me over the years.
iOS: Learning to play the piano can be difficult, and even moreso if you don’t have someone there to help you fix your errors and learn good tempo. Simply Piano can do both of those things, and all it takes is your iPhone or iPad. Best of all, it’s free.
Like many “piano-learning” apps, Simply Piano teaches you various pieces of music by essentially displaying sheet music in front of you to play, guiding you to the right keys on your piano or keyboard, and showing you the right order in which to press them and when — that’s all great, and not terribly unique, even if it works well. Where the app shines however is its listening feature. Simply put the phone down near the keyboard, and Simply Piano will “listen” to you play.
As you play, the app identifies what you’re playing and gives you feedback on how to improve. Maybe you need to pick up the tempo, or maybe you missed a few notes here or there — whatever it is, the app can give you a few tips, and encourages you to try again, all while it listens and tries to help.
Simply Piano is free, and available now. It comes bundled with a ton of songs to learn (including classical and pop songs you’ll probably recognise), and is geared to all skill levels — and keyboard types, so you don’t need a fancy piano just to use the app, any keyboard will do. Hit the link below to try it out.
I have purchased a set of Shades of Sound Listening & Coloring Book: Halloween for the studio.
Each week, I will print out some of the pages for your student and put them in his/her notebook. They are also available in your Parent/Student Portal. After listening to the music on YouTube, the student may color the pages.
After they are colored, please return them to the notebook so that there will be a complete book when finished.
If you are an adult and want to listen and color, too, just let me know and I’ll print you a set.
The Shades of Sound Listening and Coloring Books are a great way to encourage students to listen to great piano and orchestral repertoire. Students of all ages will love coloring the fun pictures while listening to and learning from the music of the great composers.
This Shades of Sound Halloween edition includes 13 spooky pieces of piano and orchestral literature, ranging from the Baroque to the Modern period. By spending just 5-10 minutes per day listening for just a few days per week, students can listen to and complete the whole book in a few weeks.
Aspiring pianists need to know the literature, hear the greats perform, and be inspired and excited by the great music that is available! Just as writers need to read, read, read, pianists need to listen! Through this fun curriculum, students will learn about the musical periods and the great composers and their works. Listening repertoire selected includes selections from the standard solo piano literature, as well as solo piano and orchestra literature and orchestral works.
My hope is that students can add just 5-10 minutes of listening per day to their normal practicing. Listening to great music will change their understanding of music and will vastly increase their music history knowledge. It will excite and inspire them, encourage further study and listening, give them new pieces to add to their own repertoire wish list, infuse more great music into their lives, homes and families, and will boost their musicianship and expression to the next level.
The Halloween Shades of Sound book includes 13 different pieces, including:
Totentanz by Liszt
Le Cimetiere, from Clairs de Lune by Abel Decaux
Graceful Ghost Rag by William Bolcom
Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov
Tarantelle, from Music for Children Op. 65 No. 4 by Prokofiev
Tarantella by Albert Pieczonka
In the Hall of the Mountain King by Grieg
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 by Bach
Funeral March, from Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor by Chopin
Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens
The Banshee by Henry Cowell
Scarbo, from Gaspard de la nuit by Ravel
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas
Students may use The Playful Piano – Halloween Listening YouTube playlist to listen along with their book using quality recordings. The playlist is ordered to go right along with the book, and also includes 5 extra pieces (some pages include optional “Further Listening” examples students may listen to).
• 1812 ~ Fanny Perisiani, Italian coloratura soprano
• 1881 ~ The player piano was invented by Edward Leveaux of Sussex, England, who received a patent for it this day. There were many player piano inventions going on throughout the world during this time. Leveaux happened to be the lucky chap who received the patent England was handing out.
• 1929 ~ Leroy Van Dyke, Singer
• 1939 ~ A barber from Canonsburg (near Pittsburgh), PA, who had quite a singing voice, recorded That Old Gang of Mine with the Ted Weems Orchestra. That singer was the feature of the Weems band for many years before going solo as a radio, TV and stage star. You know him as ‘The Incomparable Mr. C.’, Perry Como. His string of hits for RCA Victor spans four decades. He was an NBC mainstay for years and years.
• 1943 ~ Is You is or is You Ain’t My Baby? was the musical question by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five on this day on Decca Records.
• 1947 ~ James Fielder, Bass with these groups: Buffalo Springfield, Mothers of Invention and Blood, Sweat & Tears
• 1948 ~ Gordon MacRae hosted the premiere of a radio classic. The Railroad Hour debuted on ABC radio. The theme song was I’ve Been Working on the Railroad and the show was sponsored by….America’s Railroads.
• 1949 ~ John Aler, American tenor
• 1959 – Chris Lowe, Keyboards with Pet Shop Boys
• 1966 ~ It was, indeed, a Sunny Day for singer Bobby Hebb, who received a shiny gold record award for his song.
• 1970 ~ Janis Joplin died from a drug overdose. She was 27. Joplin, known for her passionate, bluesy, vocal style, was the lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company. She became a superstar with hits like, Down on Me, Pearl (her nickname) and Every Little Piece of My Heart; but Me and Bobby McGee was her only certified top 40 hit. The Bette Midler movie, The Rose, was based on Joplin’s life.
• 1999 ~ Art Farmer passed away
• 2000 ~ International diplomat and Newport Music Festival director David Meredith Evans died at the age of 64.
• 2001 ~ Irmgard Farden Aluli, considered the most prolific female Hawaiian composer since Queen Liliuokalani, died after suffering complications from colon cancer surgery. She was 89. Aluli, affectionately nicknamed “Aunty”, became the first living member to be inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 1998. In August, the Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club honored her as a cultural living treasure. She wrote more than 200 songs, including Boy from Laupahoehoe and E maliu Mai. Aluli began performing publicly after graduating from St. Andrew’s Priory in 1929. She was a member of the Annie Kerr Trio in the 1930s. In the late 1960s, Aluli, her daughters and a niece formed the group Puamana.
• 2001 ~ Jazz guitarist John Collins, who played with Nat King Cole for over a decade, died at the age of 83. Collins was born in Montgomery, Ala., and grew up in Chicago. His mother, Georgia Gorham, was a pianist and bandleader. Collins briefly played clarinet before switching to guitar and moving to New York, where he played with prominent jazzmen such as pianist Art Tatum. Collins accompanied singer Billie Holiday and saxophonist Lester Young in the 1940s and played in bands led by Benny Carter and Fletcher Henderson. He served in the Army during World War II, and played in Army bands. Esquire magazine gave Collins its New Star award as best guitarist of 1947, his lone jazz poll honor. Collins’ 14-year association with Cole began in 1951, when he replaced guitarist Oscar Moore. Collins played with Cole until the latter’s death in 1965. Collins went on to tour Europe with his own group. He played occasionally around Southern California in the 1990s but worked mainly as a private teacher.