Our Halloween themed concert features the spookiest symphonic music from Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (famous for its use of dies ira, a chant for the dead), as well as the film “A Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
The rattle of bones, the dance of the dead: These were the sounds and images that the 19th century French composer sought to capture in this seminal tone poem.
Elfman—The Nightmare Before Christmas Orchestral Suite
Unless you live under a rock (or a tombstone), you’ve heard Elfman’s music … even if you have never heard his name. This suite features some of the best music from his Golden Globe-nominated score for the beloved Tim Burton film.
Berlioz — Symphonie Fantastique
While its name implies a symphonic work, this five-movement composition is really an extended tone poem full of richly colorful episodes that depict a dramatic tale of unrequited love and supernatural hallucination.
Written by Joe Nickell
Camille Saint-Saëns – Danse Macabre
By the time he reached his 20th
birthday, Camille Saint-Saëns was already known internationally as a composer and pianist to be reckoned with. Ten years earlier, the Paris-born musician had received newspaper notices as far away as Boston for his ability to play all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas from memory. In his teens, he wrote three symphonies as well as numerous other smaller-scale works. “I live in music like a fish lives in water,” Saint-Saëns said, composing “as an apple tree produces apples.”
Not only was he a precocious talent, but during the first half of his 84-year life he was also a champion of new musical forms. A friend and disciple of the pianist and composer Franz Liszt, Saint-Saëns adapted many of the Hungarian trailblazer’s new ideas to his own compositional voice. One such innovation was the symphonic poem — a form in which musical ideas followed a narrative, emotional structure rather than traditional patterned musical constructs.
Between his mid-30s and mid-40s, Saint-Saëns penned four symphonic poems. The third of these, written in 1874, would become the most famous: the short, lively Danse Macabre
. Ironically, this virtuosic violin showcase was not conceived as an orchestral work but rather as a song for voice and piano, setting an actual poem by Henri Cazalis. While the words were ultimately lost in Saint-Saëns’ final version, their narration still depicts the progress of the music in almost every detail:
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.
So effectively does the composer capture the rattle of bones and devilish playfulness of the poem that Danse Macabre
was initially rejected by the public as too dark. It didn’t help that Saint-Saëns included a deformed quote of the familiar Requiem plainsong melody, Dies irae
(“Day of wrath”), transformed into a jaunty major-key bonbon: apparently nothing was sacred. “Saint-Saëns has succeeded in producing effects of the most horrible, hideous and disgusting sort,” scoffed a critic in the London Daily News in 1879.
Time would prove such criticism laughable; Danse Macabre
has since become the composer’s most-performed work and the go-to soundtrack for Halloween-themed commercials, animated shorts and (naturally) dances.
Danny Elfman—The Nightmare Before Christmas Orchestral Suite
Pop-chart stardom. Film music fame. Orchestra hall renown. Rarely do any two of those achievements converge in one musician. Danny Elfman can legitimately claim all three.
Elementary school orchestra reject with “no propensity for music?” That’s Elfman too. As a kid growing up in California, Elfman was mostly into science—that is, until he fell into a high school scene of teen music lovers that included classmate Kim Gordon. Gordon went on to form a band you might have heard of: Sonic Youth.
You also might have heard of Oingo Boingo. If you watched MTV in the 1980s, you couldn’t miss the band and its off-kilter, ska-influenced brand of New Wave pop. Elfman’s brother Richard had formed The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo as an experimental street theater troupe; Danny joined in 1974 and eventually transformed the group (and its name) to create the high-energy band known for songs such as “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science.”
“Weird Science” proved a double-turning point. Not only was it Oingo Boingo’s highest-charting hit but it also was Elfman’s first contribution to a movie soundtrack. Thereafter, the band’s music started appearing on other soundtracks for films including “Back to School” and “Bachelor Party.” Along the way, Elfman met the up-and-coming filmmaker Tim Burton, who asked him to provide the score for his first feature film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
Since then, Burton has become one of Hollywood’s most beloved (and bizarre) makers of films that include “Beetlejuice, “Edward Scissorhands,” two “Batman” movies, a remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and dozens more—with Elfman providing the musical scores for nearly all of them.
Perhaps the most involved collaboration between Elfman and Burton came via the 1993 animated musical, “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” The film follows the tale of Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” of Halloween Town, who stumbles upon “Christmas Town” and decides he needs to run that town and its holiday, too. Jack sings his way through much of the film. Elfman not only wrote the score for the film but also sang the parts of Jack, Barrel and the Clown with the Tear-Away Face. His music won the Saturn Award for Best Music and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Score.
In this brief suite you’ll hear the familiar hallmarks of Elfman’s style: instantly-memorable melodies couched in vivid atmospheric effects; off-balance marches and oddball lullabies; fluid tempos and surprising shifts of key. And right at the end? A quick quote of the Dies irae
melody to cap it off.
Louis-Hector Berlioz—Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14
Perhaps no other artist of lesser formal training has gained such high standing in history than Louis-Hector Berlioz. The composer of monumental works such as the four-hour opera Les Troyens
and a Requiem
that requires, among many others, eight timpani players, Berlioz never studied the piano and never learned more than a few chords. Yet his creativity was not bounded by these shortcomings, and he is now considered one of the most influential figures of 19th century music.
Studying in Paris as a young man, Berlioz immersed himself in the rich culture of the city. During a performance of Hamlet
in 1827, Berlioz was struck by the beauty of the lead actress, Harriet Smithson. “The impression made on my heart and mind by her extraordinary talent, nay her dramatic genius, was equaled only by the havoc wrought in me by the poet she so nobly interpreted,” Berlioz said.
For two years, the young composer ardently pursued Ms. Smithson, often frightening her with his persistence. When the reality that he would not secure her affections finally struck Berlioz in 1830, he transformed his emotional distress into one of the most inventive works in the history of orchestral music: the Symphonie Fantastique
, subtitled “Episode from the Life of an Artist.” Based on a fairly complex program and endowed with striking textures and beautiful melodies, this five-movement work was written over the course of just two months.
In the first movement, the author sees for the first time a woman who embodies his every ideal. He falls immediately in love with her, and associates with her a short melody, at once noble and shy, passionate and elegant. This melody will haunt him throughout the story, always tempered by the emotions of the moment, which range from jealousy to passion to terror.
In the second movement (“A Ball”), the artist finds himself at a party, yet the woman occupies his thoughts. He finds some peace when he ventures into the countryside (the third movement); but he continues to fear that she is deceiving him. The sound of two shepherds piping to each other in the distance blends with the sound of approaching thunder to leave the artist full of despair and foreboding.
Convinced that his love is spurned, the artist takes a dose of opium to kill himself. But he fails to ingest enough and instead hallucinates. The fourth movement, “March to the Scaffold,” depicts the artist's drug-induced delusion that he has killed the woman of his dreams and is being led to his own execution. At the end, he hears a final wisp of the melody that has haunted him, shattered by the final, fatal blow.
The fifth movement, “Dream of a Witches' Sabbath,” is the artist's nightmare of his own funeral, attended by witches, ghosts and sorcerers. The theme of his beloved returns — but this time it is twisted into a grotesque dance theme, interwoven with a burlesque parody of the tune we’ve now heard in three costumes tonight: the plainsong Dies irae
(“Day of Wrath”). The whole work climaxes in an orgiastic, maniacal round dance.
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