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 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 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 which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. This then leads to the 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 create this effect played by a solo violinist, which represents death. After which the main theme is heard on a solo flute and is followed by a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section, particularly the lower instruments of the string section, followed by the full orchestra who 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 with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Towards the end of the piece, there is another violin solo, now in modulation, which is then joined by the rest of the orchestra. The final section represents the dawn breaking 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.
I’m always happy when the Wikipedia pages for certain pieces of music are well-written and informative, I end up with a whole other level of appreciation for it. The Danse Macabre is awesome enough on its own, but the extra little facts are really worth reading.
The clock strikes midnight, so you know what that means. Time for the dead to dance once more.