Danse macabre (Saint-Saëns)

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Computer generated recording (transcribed by Kevin MacLeod).

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Danse macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra, written in 1874 by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It started out in 1872 as an art song for voice and piano with a French text by the poet Henri Cazalis, which is based on an old French superstition. In 1874, the composer expanded and reworked the piece into a tone poem, 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 (here represented by a solo violin). 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 (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The solo violin enters playing the tritone consisting of an A and an E-flat—in an example of scordatura tuning, the violinist's E string has actually been tuned down to an E-flat to create the dissonant tritone. The first theme is heard on a solo flute,[1] followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section.[2] The first and second themes, or fragments of them, are then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra. The piece becomes more energetic and at its midpoint, right after a contrapuntal section based on the second theme,[3] there is a direct quote[4] played by the woodwinds of the Dies irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem Mass that is melodically related to the work's second theme. The Dies irae is presented in a major key, which is unusual. After this section the piece returns to the first and second themes and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Then there is an abrupt break in the texture[5] and the coda represents the dawn breaking (a cockerel's crow, played by the oboe) 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:


The text comes from the poem "Égalité, Fraternité...", part of Jean Lahor's (a pseudonym of Henri Cazalis) l'Illusion.

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.[citation needed] Audiences were quite unsettled by the disturbing, yet innovative,[dubious ] sounds that Saint-Saëns elicited. Shortly after the premiere, it was transcribed into a piano arrangement by Franz Liszt (S.555),[6] 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.[7]

In popular media[edit]


Danse macabre has been used as background music in many movies and films 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.
  • A Seattle, Washington, radio show, Imagination Theater, uses it as a theme song for its "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.
  • Jeffery Hatcher's theatrical production of The Turn of the Screw incorporates "Danse Macabre" in a scene as a way to increase tension and uneasiness. The actor playing Miles must hum or sing the piece over a monologue which is spoken by the Governess.
  • The "rock orchestra", Esperanto, titled their third album Dance Macabre, and its final track included a version of Saint-Saëns' piece.
  • It was also played at the 2011 BBC Proms by Horrible Histories. A group of dancers played the skeletons dancing the dance of death. It was used to illustrate the level of death during the Middle Ages in Britain.
  • It is the background music of the Carnival level in the game One Hundred and One Dalmatians for PlayStation.
  • It is included in the classical soundtrack of the Napoleonic Wars downloadable content for the video game Mount & Blade: Warband.
  • 2010 Olympic figure skating champion Yuna Kim used Danse Macabre as the music for her short program for the 2008–2009 season. At the World Championships, Kim achieved a world record score for the program, and went on to place first at the event.
  • A series of Jameson Irish Whiskey commercials in 2012 feature the piece.
  • In the novel Beyond the Reflection's Edge by Bryan Davis, Nathan, the protagonist, plays the song on the violin to ease passengers on an airplane that is about to crash. He unintentionally frightens them instead when he tells them that the song is called "The Dance of Death".
  • In Inanimate Insanity Episode 18 Taco and Orange Juice into a finals music of Kevin Macleod Dance Macabre after Orange Juice wins and music stopped


  1. ^ [IMSLP full score, page 3]
  2. ^ [full score, page 4, 4th bar]
  3. ^ [full score, page 13, rehearsal letter C]
  4. ^ [full score, page 16, rehearsal letter D]
  5. ^ [full score, page 50, 6th bar]
  6. ^ Salle, Michael (2004). Franz Liszt: A Guide to Research. New York: Routledge. p. 460. ISBN 0-415-94011-7. 
  7. ^ Garafola, Lynn (2005). Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance. New York: Wesleyan University Press. pp. 155–156. ISBN 978-0-8195-6674-4. 
  8. ^ Restoration of the original cartoon, including details
  9. ^ Animation on YouTube
  10. ^ Rare Halloween Videos Blog
  11. ^ Animation on YouTube

External links[edit]

Sheet music[edit]