March 25 - July 31, 2008
"Danse Macabre" (literally translated as "Gruesome Dance" or "Death's Dance" (first performed in 1875) is the name of opus 40 by French composer Camille Saint-SaÃ«ns.
The symphonic poem is based upon a poem by Henri Cazalis, on an old French 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. His skeletons dance for him until the first break of dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.
Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.
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") represented by a solo violin with its E-string tuned to an E-flat in an example of scordatura tuning--(literally Italian for "mistuning" or cross-tuning), representing death on his fiddle. After which the main theme is heard 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--and Death thumbs his nose at the dawn before disappearing for another year.
You hear Death striking a tomb with his heel, the dance-tune on the violin, the winter wind blowing, moans in the trees, skeletons running and leaping in their shrouds, bones of the dancers cracking and a sudden stop when the cock crows. I call it "A Weird Waltz".
The piece makes use of the xylophone in a particular theme to imitate the sounds of rattling bones. Saint-SaÃ«ns uses a similar motif in the 'Fossils' part of his "Carnival of the Animals". (I'm working on a MIDI file of that one, too!)