Saint-Saëns’ most popular composition was inspired by a poem of Henri Cazalis describing the Medieval superstition that at Halloween ‘Death’ (or the Devil) has the power to summon the dead from their graves to dance until dawn:
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.
This sounds very scary, but Saint-Saëns gives it a light almost comic touch.
The work begins with the orchestral clock striking midnight. The Devil tunes up his (intentionally) mistuned violin and begins playing a waltz. A dancing army of skeletons (you can hear the bones rattling), ghosts etc. appears and the party begins. The action becomes increasingly frenzied until a cockerel (an oboe) announces the dawn. The spectral party then vanishes into the morning mist and the Devil plays a last mournful fiddle solo before slinking back to hell for another year.