Around Halloween every year, we indulge ourselves with little bits of mythology. It’s fun. 

We listen to “Thriller,” we put on Grim Reaper costumes, we watch a Tim Burton movie here and there. Do the legends hold any real meaning to us? Generally, no. We don’t really think of Death as a malicious tyrant who arbitrarily takes whom he will without mercy. Death, to us, is an event, not a being.We really don’t personify death at all.

Truth is, we live in a strange time and culture, at least if you view our lifestyles through the lense of history. There were centuries when death seemed very close to people across Europe and Asia. The Mongolian Invasions, the Bubonic Plague, the 30 Years War–they were just a few eras when people viewed death differently. There were many more.

Faced with the mortality of men almost daily, people during these times developed traditions and myths that personified death beyond anything we think about today. One such example was The Dance of Death.

If you think that dancing skeletons and violins played by Death itself sound interesting, keep listening. I’d imagine Tim Burton’s ears are perking up as we speak.

It turns out that composer Camille Saint Saens wrote a tone poem for orchestra called “Danse Macabre,” and the piece illustrates the famous Dance of Death. It’s the quintessential example of Halloween music. Take that, Michael Jackson. 

Join us as we explore the devilish imagery in the music itself and the dark history that gave birth to such a grotesque myth.

Actually, the music itself is fun and playful. The history? Not so much.

This is Backstage Podcast.

Hello and welcome to this week’s Backstage Podcast: where we tell you true stories about music and its musicians. My name is Justen Blackstone. This week’s episode is very close to one of our favorite holidays, you guessed it, Halloween. We are going to explore the Danse Macabre and hopefully not get too creeped out by all of the weird and grotesque mythology.

Ok, well Adam told me it’s not really that bad. But seriously, this is about the “dance of death.”

Here we go!

First off, here’s the gist of Camille Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre. It’s what we often refer to as a tone poem, and the music is descriptive by nature. In this case, it tells a story. 

At midnight on Halloween, Death appears in a graveyard. He’s holding a violin. As he begins to play his grotesque melody, an eclectic group of skeletons appear. They start to dance. They dance all night until a rooster crows at dawn, summoning them back to the grave. 

According to the myth, these skeletons come from all walks of life. Some had been wealthy, some had been poor, and some had been young when the die. The point was that death has no favorites. It’s the great bringer of equality. But we’ll get into the ideology some more as the episode goes along. 

While digging into this episode, we realized that we really had to dig into medieval history and events to understand the Dance of Death myth. It has a foggy past going back into ancient times, but we’ll try to cover the most important historical highlights. Together, maybe we can start to understand why a weird story about skeletons dancing at night became a cultural phenomenon. 

Historians have found concrete evidence of a story called “The Three Living and the Three Dead” dating back to 11th century Europe–that would be around the time of The Battle of Hastings and the Norman conquest of England. Scholars think that the story may have actually originated in the  Orient in the 3rd century though.

The legend goes something like this:

Three noblemen are hunting, probably for leisure and not because they had to. They come across three decomposing corpses. Not off to a great start, right?

Well it gets weirder. The three corpses, each at different stages of decomposition, begin to admonish the noblemen. They warn the young rulers of wasting their lives on frivolous activities, because one never knows when his end will come. 

Apparently, the corpses felt like they wasted their time, and their lives had come to an unexpected end there in the forest. According to the legend, the rulers were moved by the exhortation and changed the way they lived. The whole don’t-waste-your-life motif is one track of evolution for this story throughout history.

By the late 1200s however, poems were appearing that turned the legend into more of a lesson on equality rather than a teaching moment for how to live your life. Britannica states that these poems often arranged the living characters in order from pope, to emperor, to child, then clerk, and finally the hermit. No one could escape death–death, in short, was the great equalizer.

While the image of death holding a scythe didn’t come along until the 14th century (and the title of “Grim Reaper” wasn’t invented until the late 1800s) we can see that poets and other literary figures were certainly starting to personify death more often than before. 

One of my favorite Dance of Death origins comes from medieval Catholic pilgrims visiting the shrine at Montserrat outside of Barcelona. Florence Whyte writes that during the long journey to Montserrat, pilgrims would often sing and dance to keep themselves entertained at night. 

Unfortunately for the bored travelers, the clergy forbade any such activities that weren’t of a religious or pious nature. The clergy came up with a plan. They substituted a so-called “Dance of Death” for the secular dances, figuring that if they permitted the pilgrims to perform a dance that always made them think about their impending doom, they would be more likely to repent and live generally pious lives. 

I guess it would be like replacing the TV show “The Walking Dead” with “Left Behind.” It still fills that apocalyptic void in the viewer’s life, right? It just adds, you know, a didactic side. And Nicholas Cage wasn’t involved in the medieval Dance of Death. 

If we fast-forward to 1425, we’ll see that French workers were just completing a mural in the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris. It depicted the Dance of Death. Although it was destroyed in 1699, this mural’s interpretation of the Dance of Death is considered the father to all Dance of Death mythology since. It featured the version where skeletons came together for a dance and hinted at the universality of death, rather than falling more along the lines of the “Three Living and Three Dead” story.

Europe’s fascination with death seems a little bit strange by this point. I mean, was a mural necessary? Did there have to be a dance? We found that the mythology makes a lot more sense when you dig into the horrors of the era though, not the least of which was the Bubonic Plague. 

I just wanted to stop here and give your senses a little break from the creepiness. If you have any questions for Adam and me, send us an email. Also, be sure to check out our website to see our weekly comic featuring yours truly and Adam. Find us on twitter @askbackstage or on Facebook by searching for Backstage Podcast. Now shall we re-enter the haunted mythology before us? Here we go. 

Bubonic Plague, also known as The Black Death, is probably the single biggest contributor to the furtherance of Dance of Death mythology. 

Merchants returning from the Silk Route brought plague-laden flees to Europe in 1346, and it only took until 1353 for the plague to wipe out 45-50% of Europe’s population, according to historian Philip Daileader. 

The disease was passed by a mere flea bite. When the bacteria made it’s way to a human lymph node, excruciatingly painful bulbous sores would appear. Fevers, chills, and even tissue bleeding and shock often followed. Mortality rates were higher than any other pandemic in history. 

The Eurasian death toll fell between 75 and 200 million people.

After that, you’re probably thinking that life couldn’t get any worse in 14th century Europe. You would be wrong. The Hundred Year’s War kicked off in 1337, just a few years before the Black Death.

This conflict between England and Europe lasted until 1453 and kept death top-of-mind for multiple generations of both peasants and royalty alike. In 1455, England had to deal with internal strife during the War of the Roses. Just a few generations later, the horrific 30 Years War started in 1618. 

The 30 Years War was the bloodiest conflict between European states to-date–by the time the Peace of Munster was signed in 1648, between 3 and 11 million people had died, countless farms, cities, and towns were destroyed, and the male population of Europe was slashed at percentage rates rivaling the Black Death.

We’re getting to the music soon [chuckle?]. I know this has gotten pretty dark. Truth is, the myth makes absolutely no sense without these events in mind.

From the middle ages until Saint Saens’ tone poem was written, there were a wealth of poems, books, folk songs, paintings, and literal dances that dealt with the topic of Death actively calling people to itself. This phenomenon is a lot easier to grasp when you realize just how close death was to the average person during some of these hard times. It was all around. There were times when European citizens had a hard time deciding which was preferable: living or dying.

Even more astounding is that World War 1, the most horrific conflict in Europe’s history,  started only about 40 years after Saint Saens wrote Danse Macabre. World War II followed in the 1940s of course, and it was even bloodier than the first. It’s hard to imagine 50 and 80 million casualties. 

One way to look at this is that people back then experienced so much death and therefore embraced the folk lore more readily. That’s very likely. Another point of view is that we live in a sort of bubble. A historical “safe space,” if you will. I certainly wouldn’t say that to an Iraq War veteran or to a refugee from Aleppo, but on a citizen level, we Americans have a pretty soft existence. 

Basically, we are the weird ones. Global citizens throughout history? They’ve dealt with a lot of hardship and conflict. And not to burst our peaceful bubble, but the cycle over here may very well be ending.

Anyways, those are all things to take into consideration when dealing with Dance of Death mythology. Let’s talk about Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre.

Camille Saint-Saens had a certain poet friend named Henri Cazalis. Henri did something that I would never do and visited the Paris Catacombs. Something about his dive into the habitat of the Parisian Dead seemed to spark his poetic genius, and he wrote a poem with his own take on the mythical “Dance of Death” called, “Equality, Brotherhood,” in 1868. It drew influence from Goethe’s earlier work, called “Der Totentanz” on the same subject matter. Here are a few stanzas:

Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,
Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.

The winter wind blows, and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
White skeletons pass through the gloom,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.

Zig, zig, zig. What a saraband!
They all hold hands and dance in circles.
Zig, zig, zag. You can see in the crowd
The king dancing among the peasants.

Saint-Saens’ apparently saw musical potential in his friend’s ghostly verse, and he set it to an art song. Unfortunately, audiences generally didn’t enjoy it. The song wasn’t controversial or anything, it just failed to generate any conversation or interest. Saint Saens thought this tune deserved more attention, and he promptly trashed the art song idea and set it for orchestra instead.

Saint Saens was a master orchestrator. The opening moments of the tone poem feature a harp, softly plucking a D 12 times in a row. You can probably see where this is going–the 12th note signaled the stroke of midnight.

After the clock strikes 12, the violin enters with a jarring tritone, accomplished by tuning the E string down a half step. Here’s what it sounds like:

Saint Saens did this very much on purpose.

First of all, the dissonant tritone had been referred to as “The Devil in Music” throughout classical music history. You can learn more about that in the blog post on our website, but composers would basically use it to represent dark or mysterious subject matter, and Roman Catholic composers would sometimes invoke the devilish Tritone when referencing the Crucifixion. 

Secondly, Saint Saens needed a frightening way to symbolize the appearance of Death at midnight, ready to summon his new victims with a violin in hand. When you hear that jarring entrance of the violin, you know that death has arrived.

After the scary-sounding tritone, the whole violin section breaks into a fun, if not slightly minor-sounding, dance. If you abide by the “pirate song vs. love song” rule, this would definitely be classified as a pirate song. This represents the part of the “Dance of Death” myth when the skeletons come out of their graves and jauntily dance along with Death himself.

You’ll hear a good bit of xylophone during the dance section, and that’s because Saint Saens loved using the instrument to represent the sound of dancing bones. Pretty effective, if you ask me. The xylophone was actually a new instrument at the time, and Saint Saens had to include a note in the score telling conductors where he could purchase a xylophone. 

Since then, the xylophone has probably become the leading representation of dancing bones in music–even Disney used it in the 1929 Dancing Skeletons short. We’ll put that on the website as well. And it’s a surprisingly frightening cartoon–it’s fun, but you might need your kids there with you to remind you that it’s not real. We all know who really gets creeped out during scary movies.

Another symbolic part of Danse Macabre was the composer’s use of the Dies Irae, an important component of Requiems.  A requiem is essentially a “mass for the dead,” and the Latin terms “Dies Irae” mean “Day of Wrath.” It comes from Gregorian chant. Saint Saens was driving the death imagery home yet again, although he did tweak the Dies Irae to make it more jaunty and major.

As a quick side note — Saint Saens was actually one of the earliest film composers. His first fild gig was a score for a filmed one-act ballet in 1908. Along those lines, the Gregorian Dies Irae has been used in countless movie scores–The Exorcist, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Star Wars to name a few. I think I see yet another blog post coming, haha. Stay tuned for that.

Let’s talk about the last aspect of the musical imagery, which would be when the rooster crows at dawn. This is the skeletons’ signal to finish their grotesque party and descend back whence they came. Saint Saens used the oboe to represent the rooster. Sorry, oboe.

After the oboe’s rooster call, the violin plays one last repetition of the eerie, plaintive theme to allow the skeletons time to escape. The Dance of Death is now complete, and the piece is finished.

Critics, however, were appalled. 

Writer Roger NIchols offers a glimpse into the criticism of Saint Saens’ Danse Macabre. The first issue?

Quote 1: “The deformed Dies Irae plainsong.”

Looks like people in that day and age didn’t enjoy a major version of the “Day of Wrath” Gregorian Chant. The way Saint Saens turned it into an off-kilter dance also rubbed some listeners the wrong way, even though a tone poem designed after the “Dance of Death” seems like a great time to deform the Dies Irae a little bit. Nichols fills us in on a little bit more criticism, though:

“The horrible screeching of the violin.”

Well, we can’t blame concert-goers for this one. The opening violin tritone does sound like horrible screeching. The funny thing is, it was supposed to sound horrible. It seems a little bit like someone who hates sad endings going to watch Chinatown and then complaining about it. But whatever. What does Richard Nichols tell us next?

“Ambiguity, stridency and disturbing lack of restraint.” 

Again, this is pretty subjective, and if French concert-goers weren’t ready for this kind of music yet, it was their loss. It also bears mentioning that the xylophone drew a lot of criticism as well. It was a new instrument, it doesn’t exactly have the most gorgeous sound in the world. We’ll cut the critics a little bit of slack.

The initial poor critical reaction didn’t hurt Danse Macabre in the long run. It eventually won over a following, and In 1897, a group of 50 musicians went into the Paris catacombs for a “live performance.” Add that to the growing list of things I’ll never do. There was even a huge, thrilled audience present–they were all skeletons, of course.

Even though the piece eventually became successful, the aftermath of Danse Macabre wasn’t all roses for Saint Saens. In an eerie twist of fate, both of his young sons tragically died in 1878. Within 6 weeks of each other.

The first, a two and a half year-old, fell out of a 4th-story apartment window. Six weeks later, Saint Saens’ 6-month-old died of a disease. To make matters even worse, he harbored resentment towards his young wife over the first incident, and three years later, he quietly slipped away and never spoke to her again.

His departure from her was actually in line with the way he handled his proposal–he generally avoided confrontation. He was a pretty timid guy.

At the time of his marriage proposal, he was 39 years old. She was 19. He was afraid of directly posing the question to her, so he wrote a letter to her brother instead, asking if he would like to be his brother in law. I guess that incident about summed up the marriage, and although Saint Saens’ method of separating from his wife was incredibly cowardly, it was at least consistent with his character. Hard to imagine someone doing that though, especially because she was still grieving too. 

He went to live with his mother, who some historians refer to as the only person he had ever truly loved. She had raised him without a father in the picture. The Dance of Death, however, continued to play in Saint Saens’ life, and his beloved mother died in 1888. He was left devastated. 

Saint Saens himself lasted, and thrived, until 1921, when the Danse Macabre finally caught up to him. 

If you’d like to see him, tickets to Paris are relatively affordable right now. We assume he’ll be hanging out at the Paris Catacombs at some point after midnight on Halloween.

You’d better be prepared to dance.

Backstage this week was creepily constructed by Adam Gingery 

And it was hauntingly delivered by Justen Blackstone. If you thought the background music was cool or if you liked the production in general, check out Vyking on Soundcloud. We’ll have another awesome illustration from Vivian going up on the website soon too, so check it out.