About this work
Liszt was one of the greatest of all transcribers for piano at a time when the piano transcription was the primary way of disseminating orchestral or operatic music outside the concert hall or theater. Saint-Sa'ns' tone poem (his third and most popular) was a brand-new piece when Liszt made this exceptionally difficult piano version of it. The tone poem itself was something like a transcription; it was an expansion of a song Saint-Sa'ns had written to a poem by Henri Cazalis. Many singers were unkind to the song, proclaiming it virtually unsingable. The text pictures Death as a dark fiddler, playing his fatal dance at the midnight hour.
In his letter presenting his transcription for Saint-Sa'ns' approval, Liszt modestly stated that his piano version could not recreate the sound of the orchestra. Nevertheless, Liszt comes as close as possible with marvelous suggestions of the sounds of the original, from the midnight bell tolling (originally harp notes) to the sounds of Death's fiddle, to the clattering of the dancers' bones.