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Danse macabre, Op. 40 by Frenchmarker 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.

Analysis

According to the superstition, "Death" appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death has the power to call forth the dead from their graves to dance 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 first break of 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 to signify the clock striking midnight, accompanied by soft chords from the string section. This then leads to the eerie 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 accommodate this) played by a solo violin, representing death on his fiddle. After which the main theme is heard on a solo flute and is followed by a descending scale on the solo violin. The rest of the orchestra, particularly the lower instruments of the string section, 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 at this point, the full orchestra playing with strong dynamics. Towards the end of the piece, there is another violin solo, now modulating, which is then joined by the rest of the orchestra. The final section, a pianissimo, represents the dawn breaking and the skeletons returning to their graves.

The piece makes particular use of the xylophone in a particular theme to imitate the sounds of rattling bones. Saint-Saëns uses a similar motif in the Fossils part of his Carnival of the Animals.

Instrumentation

Danse Macabre is scored for an obbligato violin, as well as the following orchestra:

Woodwinds
Piccolo
2 Flutes
2 Oboes
2 Clarinets in B-flat
2 Bassoons


Brass
4 Horns in G and D
2 Trumpets in D
3 Trombones
Tuba


Percussion
Timpani
Xylophone
Bass Drum
Cymbals
Triangle


Strings
Harp


Violins I, II
Violas
Violoncellos
Double Basses


Text

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!


Reception

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, who recognized the genius of Danse Macabre and greeted it with much enthusiasm. 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."

Use in Soundtracks

Danse Macabre has been used as background music in many movies and television series, including:

Other uses include:

References



External links

Sheet music



Audio




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