THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

31 October 2016

Dances of death

For some, Halloween is a chance to go trick-or-treating, carve pumpkins and indulge in some apple-bobbing. For others, the eve of All Hallows’ or All Saints’, as it is also known, is a chance to remember the dead.

Through the ages, music has played a vital role in celebrations associated with 31 October. In the medieval and renaissance periods, symbolic representations of death as a skeleton or procession of skeletons leading the living to the grave became codified in a phenomenon known as the “dance of death”. In more recent times, the dance of death has come to mean simply a dance performed by skeletons, usually in a graveyard.

Skeletons and music famously come together in Les simulachres et historiées faces de la mort of 1538. Later known as the “Totentanz”, this collection of woodcuts by Hans Holbein the Younger includes several images depicting dancing skeletons playing instruments.

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 Les simulachres et historiées faces de la mort (1538). British Library, 1044.f.30

The earliest music that can be linked definitively with the dance of death is a Mattasin oder Toden Tantz in August Nörmiger’s Tabulaturbuch auff dem Instrumente (1598). This genre then underwent something of a revival in the nineteenth century. Drawing inspiration from Goethe’s poem Der Todtentanz, the dance of death became a midnight revel by resurrected skeletons.

One of the most famous works to come from this period was Camille Saint-Saëns’s symphonic poem Danse macabre (“Dance of death”), opus 40, of 1874. On Halloween night, skeletons rise from their graves and dance to a haunting violin melody. A xylophone is used to imitate the sound of their rattling bones. They dance all night until dawn, when they must return to their graves until next year.

F-82-c-melodyFamous violin melody from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre (1874). British Library f.82.c

Franz Liszt famously went on to make a piano transcription of the work three years later. However, Saint-Saëns’ orchestral version was actually based on a song the French composer had written in 1872. It sets words from a well-known poem by Henri Cazalis, similar to Goethe’s Der Todtentanz.

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Danse macabre (earlier song by Camille Saint-Saëns; words by Henri Cazalis). British Library H.1777.n.(5.)

Both the song and later orchestral version quote the Dies irae. Meaning “Day of wrath”, the plainchant sequence traditionally associated with the pre-Vatican requiem mass is famously used for its inherent symbolism of death.

Don’t have nightmares!