Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre

Saint-Saens's Danse Macabre

Anna Harwell Celenza
Illustrator:  Joann E. Kitchel 
Historical Fiction Picture Book
For ages 7 to 10
Charlesbridge, 2013   ISBN: 978-1570913488

For hundreds of years writers, poets, artists, and musicians have been looking for inspiration in odd places. In 1872 the composer Camille Saint-Saens and his friend the poet Henri Cazalis took a strange journey beneath the streets and buildings of Paris into the famous catacombs where the bones of countless men, women and children lay. In the flickering light of their lamps the bones seemed to dance, and Henri even went so far as to pick up some of the bones to make them dance a jig. Henri started to recite a poem that he had written about Maestro Death who “keeps time / Tapping his heel on a tomb.”

   Though Camille thought Henri’s lack of respect for the dead went a little too far, he couldn’t forget his strange visit to the place where Paris’s dead rested. He asked Henri for a copy of his poem and set out to write a “spine-chilling song” to go with it.

   In just a few days Camille was able to set his friend’s words to music, and at a dinner party the song was performed by a famous singer. Instead of being happy with the song, Camille was disappointed because he wanted the song to be spooky. After all, the music was supposed to be “about skeletons rising from the grave.” Henri’s poem mentioned lovers and so the singer turned the song into a love song. Camille was going to have to try something new if he wanted his music to have the tone he was looking for.

   In this wonderful title Anna Harwell Celenza tells the story of one of the world’s great pieces of classical music. It is interesting to find out what inspired the music and then to learn that the composer had to struggle to be able to present his vision the way he wanted it to be presented. As far as he was concerned a piece of music about dancing skeletons had to have the right combination of creepiness and jollity.

   At the back of the book the author provides her readers with further information about Saint-Saens and his unique music. This book includes an audio recording of the Danse Macabre performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.