Danse macabre (Saint-Saëns)

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For the medieval allegory, see Danse Macabre.
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 the 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.[1] 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 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,[2] followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section.[3] 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,[4] there is a direct quote[5] played by the woodwinds of the Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem that is melodically related to the work's second theme. The Dies Irae is presented unusually in a major key. 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[6] 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 and an orchestra consisting of one piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B-flat, two bassoons; four horns in G and D, two trumpets in D, three trombones, one tuba; a percussion section that includes timpani, xylophone, bass drum, cymbals and triangle; one harp and strings.


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

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 was first performed it was not well received.[7] The piece caused widespread consternation: the commentator Roger Nichols mentions adverse reaction to "the deformed Dies irae plainsong", the "horrible screeching from solo violin", the use of a xylophone and "the hypnotic repetitions", in which Nichols hears a pre-echo of Ravel's Boléro.[7]

Shortly after the premiere, the piece was transcribed into a piano arrangement by Franz Liszt (S.555),[8] a good friend of Saint-Saëns. The best-known piano transcription (for four hands) is by Ernest Guiraud. The composition was again later transcribed for piano by Vladimir Horowitz. There is an organ transcription by Edwin Lemare.

The piece was later used in dance performances, including those of Anna Pavlova.[9]


  1. ^ Boyd, Malcolm. "Dance of death", Grove Music Online, Oxford University Press, retrieved 6 October 2015. (subscription required)
  2. ^ [IMSLP full score, page 3]
  3. ^ [full score, page 4, 4th bar]
  4. ^ [full score, page 13, rehearsal letter C]
  5. ^ [full score, page 16, rehearsal letter D]
  6. ^ [full score, page 50, 6th bar]
  7. ^ a b Nichols, Roger (2012), Notes to Chandos CD CHSA 5104, OCLC 794163802
  8. ^ Salle, Michael (2004). Franz Liszt: A Guide to Research. New York: Routledge. p. 460. ISBN 0-415-94011-7. 
  9. ^ Garafola, Lynn (2005). Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance. New York: Wesleyan University Press. pp. 155–156. ISBN 978-0-8195-6674-4. 

External links[edit]

Sheet music[edit]