Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre

Anna Harwell Celenza, illus. by JoAnn E. Kitchel. Charlesbridge, $19.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-57091-348-8

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. CD recording included. Ages 6–9. (Aug.)