The Dance of Death engravings by Hans Holbein the Younger that can be found here
Yo so la muerte cierta a todas criaturas que son y seran en el mundo durante
demando y digo:
oh homne, por que curas de vida tan breve en punto pasante?
This is the striking beginning of Danza General de La Muerte, an Iberian masterpiece with the Danse Macabre theme. In this Spanish Escorial’s manuscript, probably written in 1390, Death addresses all sorts of people, from the top to the bottom of the society, saying:
I am Death, certain to all creatures that exist or will exist in this cruel world.
I have come calling and say to you:
Oh, human, why do you care about this fleeting life that passes in an instant?
Two hundred years had passed since the first poem about Death was written by Hélinand de Froidmont in 1197 – Les Vers de la Mort.
And before 1280, French minstrel Baudouin de Condé wrote Le Dit des trois morts et des trois vifs, where three living chevaliers meet and speak with three cadavers.
These texts are the seminal examples of what we can perceive as a Death’s obsession in late Middle Age period.
There are several reasons that could be related to this obsession. Death stroke often because of malnutrition and famine, the lack of medicine and hygienic procedures, and child mortality ratings were very high.
The 14th century brought the Black Death, devastating Europe’s population. And France and England were engaged in a conflict for over 100 years, until 1453, a century after the pandemic’s peak.
Death – and violence – surely played a major role in people’s lives in the medieval period and the Death obsession was a way to cope with it.
There were two opposite attitudes towards Death:
1. One was optimistic and spiritual, longing and hoping for Paradise and joy in afterlife
2. The other was pessimistic and materialistic, lamenting the loss of power, glory, youth and beauty
The motto Memento Mori – remember you are going to die, is subjacent to both.
Church developed the liturgy of death and the concept of Ars Moriendi, the art of a Good Death. Its purpose was to help people either by preparing them to death or by helping the dead one’s souls through postmortem masses and rituals. If the Church’s rules and precepts were followed, there was nothing to be afraid of.
Nevertheless, there was another attitude, the Carpe Diem flipped side of the Memento Mori coin, with moral and religious dissidence.
Mendicant orders, such as Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, developed the Ars Praedicandi, the art of preaching. They preached and criticized the moral loss and dishonesty of the society, including the higher levels of the clergy.
Danses Macabres were surely influenced by this critical attitude. Their common thread is Death personified as a skeleton, leading the living to the grave, dancing the way through. Death comes equal to everyone, from the Pope to an infant, regardless of the status, and exposes human vices in a visual or written social satire.
The Danse Macabre was a Pan-European medieval phenomenon that we find from Germany to Spain, France to Estonia, Finland to Switzerland.
Macabre’s etymology comes from Maccabees, a book from the Old Testament, with horrible images of 7 siblings being tortured in front of their mother, who endured it because she trusted God.
Zephania’s first book, also from the Old Testament, depicts the most terrifying images of the End of Times, the world consumed by flames and people’s entrails being scattered.
In the Abruzzo region of Italy, a Franciscan Friar, Tommaso da Celano, is the attributed author of a new Latin text written before 1250, the year of his death.
Tommaso drew his inspiration from Zephania’s book and let his imagination flow free in his depiction of the Judgement Day.
Soon the Dies Irae Gregorian Chant sequence became part of the death liturgy, first non-official, then under the blessings of the Council of Trent, in 1570. This explains why we don’t find many Dies Irae in polyphonic works.
With the advent of Renaissance, the Death obsession fades out.
In the beginning of the 19th century, with a recrudescent interest in Middle Age imagery and traditions, the Danse Macabre knows a revivalism.
In 1814 in England, Thomas Rowlandson began a series of 96 engravings with the Danse Macabre genre and William Combe’s verses.
A year later, in 1815, Goethe published a poem called Der Totentanz, where we can read:
Der Kirchhof, er liegt wie am Tage.
Da regt sich ein Grab und ein anderes dann:
Sie kommen hervor, ein Weib da, ein Mann,
In weißen und schleppenden Hemden.
(The churchyard, it lies as if it were day. Then one grave stirs and then another: They come out, a woman, a man, In white and trailing shirts.)
The Sabbath’s night from Hector Berlioz 5th movement of the Symphonie Fantastique is the perfect combination of Romantic sensibility, macabre’s genre and the Dies Irae musical motive in a noteworthy way. This musical masterpiece was so disruptive it inspired Franz Liszt to write his own Dies Irae Paraphrase, also known as Totentanz, a work inspired by extra musical influences of all sorts, including Goethe’s poem.
In 1868 French poet Henri Cazalis picked the same subject for his – Égalité Fraternité, a rather ironic title to the poem that became a chanson that became a tone poem, in Camille’s Saint Saens Danse Macabre from 1874.
These are the conceptual and musical guidelines to the Dies Irae program of my weekly series Semibreve. The program you’ll listen to is part of a double bill idea, the first being Camille’s Saint Saens Danse Macabre.
As any radio producer knows, it’s not easy to pick weekly subjects and the calendar is very helpful.
In the 28th October 2022, the Semibreve about Saint Saens Danse Macabre was broadcasted, and the Dies Irae one on the 4th November, framing Halloween, All Saints Day and Dia de los Muertos, or Fiéis Defuntos. Both programs also frame the tragic 1st November 1755, the day my city, Lisbon, was destroyed by a major earthquake + fire + tsunami, resulting in the first global European aid.
There’s also a personal anecdote to it. I studied in the only public music school I know that teaches Gregorian Chant as a discipline for teenagers for three years in a row. I have a vivid memory of my 14 years old self, in Latin class, searching for Favilla in the dictionary and reading “the warm ashes from the dead”. Needless to say, I never forgot it.
Working on a public service media, I feel a legacy obligation to bring collective memory forward, highlighting Gregorian Chant in the process, as did Maurice Duruflé in his Requiem, with which I start the program you’re about to listen.
It’s the end of October, Nature is withdrawing and Winter’s coming. Maybe some of us will engage in pagan and Christian celebrations that weave our common European culture. I’m thrilled of being here, presenting the Dies Irae program a full year after it was conceived, completing a round circle.
Thank you for your time and attention