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Dances of Death

By Jessica Barbour


Dance of death: woodcut (‘The Princess’) from Hans Holbein (i)’s ‘Totentanz’ series, before 1526, published 1538. Source: Grove Music Online.
An eerie image emerged from Europe’s 14th-century bubonic plague epidemics into popular imagination: Death, in skeleton form, leading living souls in a processional dance to the grave. This idea, the danse macabre, was evoked by artists and writers across the continent, a cultural reaction to daily lives spent surrounded by death.

I was introduced to the genre in school when I first heard Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, a boisterous seven-minute work for orchestra written in the 1870s. Though the work’s origins are traceable to very specific medieval imagery, I didn’t know anything about them at the time. What I remember about my first encounter with the piece is the presence in the piece of Death, which I conflated musically with that of the Devil—something which obscured (in my mind, anyway) what the danse macabre was, and how it came to be.

The earliest known illustration of the danse macabre was a mural painted in the cloisters of the Cimitière des Innocents in Paris in the early 15th century. According to Grove Art Online,

the procession consisted of a series of couples, one living and one dead, arranged in an order of precedence beginning with pope and emperor and ending with a hermit and a baby. Underneath each dancer an eight-line octosyllabic stanza offered a moralistic commentary with a distinct social edge: death treats all estates equally.

Before the mural was destroyed in the 17th century, the book printer Guyot Marchant copied down the texts and published his Danse Macabre in 1485 with woodcut illustrations. The book’s illustrations were reprinted over and over, allowing the poems and imagery of the danse macabre to permeate European culture.

Centuries after Marchant’s book was published, works were still created on the subject, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem Der Todtentanz, Franz Liszt’s Totentanz for piano and orchestra, and, most famously, Saint-SaënsDanse Macabre.

Saint-Saëns originally wrote this piece as a song-setting of a poem of the same name by Henry Cazalis. The instrumental version, completed two years later, no longer included a voice singing the poem but followed the same story: Death suddenly appears after the clock strikes midnight, playing a violin — one that has been tuned in a specifically jarring way.

Violins are typically tuned in perfect fifths, their open strings playing the pitches G, D, A, and E. The score of Danse Macabre, however, requires the soloist playing the part of Death to tune the E string down to E-flat. The violinist enters playing the two highest strings together, and the resulting interval, a tritone, is so dissonant that its use was legendarily prohibited by Medieval music theorists, earning the nickname diabolus in musica (the devil in music).

Listening to Death’s entrance in Danse Macabre can be unsettling precisely because it is so close to sounding consonant and familiar. Playing open fifths together is how violinists tune before concerts, and the tritone is only a half-step away from that. It is as close as possible to being a perfect interval without being one, falling into the uncanny valley of musical sonorities (quite appropriately for accompaniment of the dancing dead), and is an inherently creepy harmony.

In honor of Saint-Saëns’ October birthday and, of course, Halloween, I invite you to play Danse Macabre and listen for Death (and the devil) in music.

Jessica Barbour is the Associate Editor for Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. You can read her previous blog posts, including “Wedding Music” and “Clair de Supermoon”.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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