In the last post (“Solution to a Beethoven Mystery”), we traced Beethoven’s transformation of a melodic phrase into something almost (but, crucially and wonderfully, not quite) unrecognizable. In writing about this move, I was reminded of a transformation it would be amazing if one recognized. (I certainly didn’t, until I read of its existence.)
In no later than the thirteenth century (and maybe much earlier) a Catholic cleric wrote a chant-like hymn whose melody begins like this. Until fairly recently, many Europeans (and not just Catholic ones) would have had no trouble recognizing this famous tune: the “Dies Irae.” (Its less-than-cheerful text begins “Dies irae! Dies illa / Solvet saeclum in favilla,” i.e., “Day of anger! That day / Will dissolve the world in ashes.”)
This melody has been veritable catnip to subsequent composers, dozens of whom have quoted it in their works down through the centuries–usually in order to introduce a hint (or more) of doom into the proceedings. Most of these quotations are, as they’re meant to be, easy for the listener to pick out (e.g., the one in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, or in Liszt’s Totentanz). But there’s a “Dies Irae” quotation in Saint Saens’ wonderful Danse Macabre that’s anything but easy to hear. As I said above, I only recognized it when I read about its presence in the piece, and I still had trouble finding it (this in a piece I’d known intimately and loved dearly since childhood). Here’s a fine performance of Danse Macabre: can you hear where the “Dies Irae” makes its (relatively brief) appearance? Don’t feel bad–unless feeling bad makes you happy–if you don’t catch this highly transformed quotation straight off: I don’t think Saint Saens would have wanted you to (that devil–at least in his role as composer of this devilish little danse). Soft touch that I am, I’ll point the quotation out to you in next week’s post.