Danse macabre, Op. 40, is a tone poem for orchestra, written in 1874 by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. It is in the key of G minor. 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 part.
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, which was known as the diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music") during the Medieval and Baroque eras, consisting of an A and an E♭--in an example of scordatura tuning, the violinist's E string has actually been tuned down to an E♭ to create the dissonant tritone.
The first theme is heard on a solo flute, followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. 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, there is a direct quote played by the woodwinds of 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 and the coda represents the dawn breaking (a cockerel's crow, played by the oboe) and the skeletons returning to their graves.
Danse macabre is scored for an obbligato violin and an orchestra consisting of one piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B♭, 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.
When Danse macabre was first performed it was not well received. The piece caused widespread consternation: the scholar 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.
Today, it's considered one of Saint-Saëns masterpieces, widely regarded and reproduced in erudite and popular culture.
Shortly after the premiere, the piece was transcribed into a piano arrangement by Franz Liszt (S.555), 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 is played offstage during the first act of Henrik Ibsen's 1896 play John Gabriel Borkman.
The piece is used as a recurring ironic motif in Jean Renoir's 1939 film The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu),
The piece is used in the animated television series Modern Toss as the theme tune for the character, Mr. Tourette - Master Signwriter.
It can be heard in Alone in the Dark after setting the record on the Gramophone in the Dance Hall.
A synthesized version of the piece is used in the soundtrack for the anime television series Dimension W.
In Neil Gaiman's novel The Graveyard Book the characters dance the "Macabray". In the audiobook, the Danse Macabre is played between chapters.
Korean figure skater Yuna Kim used the piece as her short program music in 2008-2009 season.
The piece is played in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush"; rather than serving merely as soundtrack, the character Rupert Giles plays the song in-universe while describing the episode's villains, the Gentlemen.
The piece is arranged in multiple levels of The End is Nigh, such as "The End" and "Mortaman".