Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre

Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre

  • 1995

By: Anna Harwell Celenza / Illustrated by: JoAnn E. Kitchel

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places.

Camille Saint-Saëns was a brilliant French composer from the nineteenth century. In Saint-Saën's Danse Macabre, readers are transported to France in 1872 when Saint-Saëns visited the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris, known best as the final resting place of victims of the French Revolution. It was in this underground graveyard that Camille found the inspiration to compose Danse macabre, his spooky, mischievous masterpiece.

Early performances of what would become Saint Saëns’s most well-known piece were met with brutal criticism. However, the composer paid the naysayers no mind—to him, the choice of instrumentation perfectly captured his vision of dancing skeletons, of Maestro Death coming to life. A true story of creativity and belief in one’s own ideas, Saint-Saën's Danse Macabre will inspire the innovative thinker in all of us.

Back matter includes an author’s note with a brief summary of the historical events and figures mentioned in the text. A CD recording of Danse Macabre is also included.

Read more about Anna Celenza's Once Upon a Masterpiece series and find links to recordings of these compositions online at Anna's Music Spot.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Anna Harwell Celenza, author

Anna Harwell Celenza is a musicologist and the author of several books for adults and children regarding music history and the history of art. Her children’s books include The Farewell Symphony, Pictures at an Exhibition, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Anna lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Read more about Anna.

JoAnn E. Kitchell, illustrator

JoAnn E. Kitchel has illustrated many books for children. This is the seventh book she’s illustrated in Anna Celenza’s music-appreciation series. JoAnn lives in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire. 

Read more about JoAnn.

Awards & Honors:


  • Storytelling World Award Honor Book
  • Bank Street College of Education's Best Children's Books of the Year


Editorial Reviews:


"Zig and zig and zig. Maestro Death keeps time." A friend's poem and a visit to the catacombs underneath Paris in 1872 inspire composer Camille Saint-Saëns to write a now-famous orchestral piece echoing the sounds of dancing, clacking skeletal bones.

Imagining dialogue and taking some liberties with the story (as she explains in the backmatter), music scholar Celenza conjures up the underground visit, a first performance of the piece as a song, its orchestration and premier performance. She emphasizes the composer's fascination with the idea of dancing skeletons and his desire "to try to capture that sensation in music." She uses some delicious words—sossuary, amorously, rambunctious, diabolical, ghoulish—sure to intrigue young listeners. Two pages toward the end of the narrative could serve as program notes describing the story in the music. As with other books in this series, the package includes a CD recording. The 1996 performance is by the Pittsburgh Symphony directed by Lorin Maazel. Kitchel's pastel watercolors belie the mood of the story, although the dancing skeletons, in shades of gray, will show beautifully for Halloween read-alouds. Though the live people in these illustrations have all the animation of paper dolls, these jointed figures clearly dance.

An intriguing if fanciful introduction to a musical classic.

School Library Journal

This title in the author’s music-appreciation series addresses the origin of Camille Saint-Saëns’s symphonic work with a description of the composer’s nighttime visit to the Paris Catacombs with his friend Henri Cazalis. The musical inspiration resulted first in the form of a solo song, and later Saint-Saëns’s two-year quest for the perfect instrumental sound to express dancing skeletons rising from their graves. Originally criticized, but later acclaimed, this work is explained in first-performance detail: the first violin tuned to a dissonant interval according to specific instruction in the score, other violins played on the wood of bows, and the addition of a previously little-used instrument, the xylophone. Pen and watercolor illustrations paint 19th-century Paris streets and interiors with single-dimensional faces framing an explosion of skeletal dancing forms during the description of "Danse Macabre’s" first performance in 1875. An author’s note and accompanying CD featuring the performance of Lorin Maazel and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra complete this offering with soaring strings and dissonance, a rattling xylophone, swaying woodwinds, trombones heralding the melody, and the final call of a rooster in the solo oboe–all easily apparent to readers through the author’s descriptive text: “Long live the music! Long live the dance.

Publishers Weekly

The eighth in Celenza’s series of biographies of famous pieces of music, this account opens with an unsettling scene in which composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) and his poet friend Henri Cazalis visit the catacombs of Paris at midnight. Some readers may find the concept of a catacomb and its mountains of bones disturbing, especially when the poet uses the bones as toys, making them dance and pretending to fiddle with them. Even Saint-Saëns recoils: “A chill ran down Camille’s back. ‘Have you no respect for the dead?’ he said.” Inspired by the visit, Saint-Saëns returns home and writes the famous piece, meant to evoke the way the bones appeared to dance “in the flickering candlelight.” Celenza explores the process of creation, Saint- Saëns’s determination to “make sure the audience hears my intentions,” and the mixed reaction the work received. For older readers, Celenza’s story brings the composer up close in a way that encyclopedia biographies cannot. Kitchel emphasizes period dress and historical detail while giving life to Saint-Saëns’s visions of dancing skeletons deep beneath the Parisian streets.

Library Media Connection

This is an amazing book! The inclusion of a CD recording of Danse Macabre makes the story really pop. This story introduces the reader to composers, the catacombs of Paris, the French Revolution, and Chatelet Theater as if they were wondrous, magical things. The reader can feel confident in the accuracy of the information, as the author is a professor music. A good adult reader will capture listeners' attention, emphasizing the skeletons click clack dancing, which children love to imagine. The depiction of the catacombs is not too scary for young readers. Even the illustration of the orchestra sounding like skeletons was flowing and almost calming. This books is part of a series on famous musical compositions from Bach to Gershwin and the other titles are surely just as spiritually enlightening.

Julie Danielson of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog for Kirkus Reviews

This book, accompanied by a CD of the piece from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, tells the story of composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ inspiration for the famous tone poem, Danse Macabre. It’s a dark fall night in 1872, and he and his friend head below the streets of Paris to an underground cemetery, looking for inspiration. “Imagine if [these bones] suddenly came to life!” he tells his friend; thus begins his brainstorming for what would become a masterpiece, a waltz of the dead for orchestras all over the world. The story, “[b]ased on historical fact,” tells in detail the evolution of the musical piece and includes a detailed Author’s Note. Kitchel’s illustrations in this new entry in a music appreciation series from Charlesbridge, all titles penned by Celenza, aren’t afraid to spook; she gives way, as you can see on the cover, to dancing, floating skeletons, who revel in the music, making this one a fitting title for Halloween, come October.


Download the Cover


Hardcover w/CD
ISBN: 978-1-57091-348-8

E-book PDF
ISBN: 978-1-60734-612-8
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 6-9
Page count: 32
10 x 10

If you like this book, you’ll enjoy these:
The Once Upon a Masterpiece series
Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite
Anna's Music Spot