Monday, October 20, 2008

My 99 cents:Danse Macabre


I thought something a bit different was in order for this week's 99 cents. Obviously, Halloween will be here before we know it, and music gets you in the spirit like nothing else. While 19th century classical music doesn't scream Halloween, Camille Saint-Saens' 'Danse Macabre' is an orchestral piece about Death standing in a graveyard tuning his violin and playing a song that raises the skeletons and ghosts from their resting places. I know a lot of people feel classical music is stodgy or something for old white people or super nerdy Asian kids, but I've played classical music for 11 of my 20 years and I love it. I just downloaded the version of Charles Dutoit conducting the Philhamornia Orchestra. For people into classical music, Charles Dutoit is a big deal.

The idea of the Danse Macabre came about when the Black Plague was wreaking havoc on Europe in the 14th century. Paintings, drawings, and engravings started popping up all over the place showing Death, usually a skeleton or a partially decomposed body, leading popes, paupers, and everyone in between in a wild dance on the way to the grave. Famine and war added to the problem as well. The Danse came to symbolize the fact that no one could really escape the Plague once it came to your town; the Black Plague wiped out one third of Europe's population. Death was the great equalizer.

Danse Macabre is a tone poem, an orchestral piece that uses transparent devices to get a pretty clear story across. Those xylophone thingies you hear in the piece? Yup, those are the skeleton's bones. French composer Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) based this piece, which was originally conceived as a work for voice and piano, on a verse by poet Henri Cazalis:
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.

There's a French superstition Cazalis tapped into that says Death plays a song at midnight every Halloween for the dead to dance to until dawn. Many composers have made Death a fiddler, but not always. I once saw a cartoon set to the piece, but I can't find it now. It's a bit morbid, I know, but Danse Macabre is really cool. For listening notes, go to the Wikipedia article, but I think listening to it with the poem in front of you makes it easier and more fun. Enjoy. Here's a recording by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, but the Charles Dutoit version is better.

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Links
More about Danse Macabre
Dance of Death origins on JSTOR [long article]

1 comment:

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