Danse macabre, Op. 40 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns is an art song for voice and piano (first performed in 1872) with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis which is based in an old French superstition. Two years later, the composer expanded and reworked the piece into a tone poem for orchestra, replacing the vocal line with a solo violin.
According to legend, "Death" appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance their dance of death for him while he plays his fiddle represented by a solo violin with its E-string tuned to an E-flat in an example of scordatura tuning. His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.
The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. This then leads to the E flat and A chords also known as a tritone or the "Devil's chord", and the solo violin's E string is tuned a half step lower to create this effect played by a solo violinist, which represents death. After which the main theme is heard on a solo flute and is followed by a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section, particularly the lower instruments of the string section, followed by the full orchestra who then joins in on the descending scale. The main theme and the scale is then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra until it breaks to the solo violin and the harp playing the scale. The piece becomes more energetic and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Towards the end of the piece, there is another violin solo, now in modulation, which is then joined by the rest of the orchestra. The final section represents the dawn breaking and the skeletons returning to their graves.
The piece makes particular use of the xylophone to imitate the sounds of rattling bones. Saint-Saëns uses a similar motif in the Fossils movement of The Carnival of the Animals.
Danse macabre is scored for an obbligato violin, as well as the following orchestra:
An English translation of the poem follows:
- Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
- Striking a tomb with his heel,
- Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
- Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.
- The winter wind blows, and the night is dark;
- Moans are heard in the linden trees.
- White skeletons pass through the gloom,
- Running and leaping in their shrouds.
- Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
- You can hear the cracking of the bones of the dancers.
- A lustful couple sits on the moss
- So as to taste long lost delights.
- Zig zig, zig, Death continues
- The unending scraping on his instrument.
- A veil has fallen! The dancer is naked.
- Her partner grasps her amorously.
- The lady, it's said, is a marchioness or baroness
- And her green gallant, a poor cartwright.
- Horror! Look how she gives herself to him,
- Like the rustic was a baron.
- Zig, zig, zig. What a saraband!
- They all hold hands and dance in circles.
- Zig, zig, zag. You can see in the crowd
- The king dancing among the peasants.
- But hist! All of a sudden, they leave the dance,
- They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.
- Oh what a beautiful night for the poor world!
- Long live death and equality!
When Danse macabre first premiered, it was not received well. Audiences were quite unsettled by the disturbing, yet innovative, sounds that Saint-Saëns elicited. Shortly after the premiere, it was transcribed into a piano arrangement by Franz Liszt (S.555), a good friend of Saint-Saëns. It was again later transcribed into a popular piano arrangement by virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz. The pipe organ transcription by Lemare is also popular.
Eventually, the piece was used in dance recitals, particularly those of Anna Pavlova, who also danced to "The Swan."
Danse macabre in popular media
Danse macabre has been used as background music in many movies and television series, including:
Other uses include:
The Dutch amusement park Efteling uses it as the background theme for their haunted castle.
A record containing this song is used to solve a puzzle in the original Alone in the Dark game.
In the PlayStation game 102 Dalmatians: Puppies to the Rescue, it is used at the carnival level.
The theme song for a Seattle, Washington based radio show, Imagination Theater as a theme song for the "Sherlock Holmes" installments.
In theater, Henrik Ibsen uses this song in his play John Gabriel Borkman: the title character of the play, Hedda Gabler, plays it right before she kills herself.
The "rock orchestra" Esperanto titled their third album Dance Macabre, and it's final track included a version of Saint-Saëns' piece.
The song "Spooks in Space" by Perrey and Kinglsey, in their 1966 album The In Sound From Way Out! is based on Danse Macabre turned into an electronic pop dance.
The song was used in the 1940 Norman McLaren animation, Spook Sport.
In the music arcade game DJ Max Technika 2, a song titled "D2" is a progressive electronic dance music based on Danse Macabre.
^ Salle, Michael (2004). Franz Liszt: A Guide to Research. New York: Routledge. p. 460. ISBN 04159401174.
^ Garafola, Lynn (2005). Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance. New York: Wesleyan University Press. pp. 155–156. ISBN 9780819566744.