Halloween music has gone much the way of the holiday over the decades: accumulating camp and kitsch, confectionary fun, friendly monster-on-monster romping, and a sort of innocence that has made the season more about good times than chilling your soul.
Most everybody knows Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash,” with its Karloffian lead vocal and Dracula impersonation that, to modern ears, is as much Count Chocula as Bela Lugosi. The 1950s from which “Mash” sprung un-crypted loads of similar novelty cuts to soundtrack Halloween parties, middle-school dances, and senior-center mixers.
It’s easy to love all of that stuff, given that it’s sweet as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. But there’s something to be said for less palatable fare. Halloween deserves something more nastily pagan, evoking noisome crypts and jangling bones and moldering souls. Which is why, at least once a death-season, I return to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, a work of full-on eldritch perfection.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard Danse Macabre pretty regularly throughout the background of your life, even without ever realizing it. It features in that Jameson commercial where there’s a whiskey-thieving hawk who gets barbecued up at the end in the streets of Dublin by Johnny Jameson himself. Saint-Saëns was never one of the classical heavies like Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, or Handel, but he was a formidable prodigy, an organ master, and a variegated composer probably best known, now, for The Carnival of the Animals. That’s essentially his Peter and the Wolf number—as much, if not more, for children—and a work he refused to have published in full in his lifetime, thinking it would cause people to stop taking him seriously as a composer for adults.
In general, there’s something about organ music that induces terror. Maybe it’s the austere settings of the church where the instrment normally resides. Also the tonal range, sheer volume, echo-friendly notes, and rib-tingling power factor in, too. It’s as if the organ represents the sounds inside of us made externally audible. Your fears, doubts, paranoias, given sonic voice. Reverberating, swirling. For proof check out any garden-variety horror film from mid-century, or something so organ-dominated like 1962’s Carnival of Souls, a film I absolutely refuse to watch at night anymore.
Saint-Saëns wrote Danse Macabre, which is technically a tone poem—a form he rarely worked in—140 years ago, in 1874. There is no organ, but that aforesaid swirling, night-cycling sensibility is there, like we’re shifting through one shade of dark to another and back again, an endless nightmare loop. When the Beatles didn’t have a drummer, they said the rhythm was in the guitars, and one could very well claim that with Danse Macabre, the organ, so to speak, was in the strings.
Halloween wasn’t much of anything in this country 100 years ago, so it’s pretty new as we think of it with the costuming and the trick-or-treating. The European tradition, from which Saint-Saëns’s wrote, was the tradition of scaring the absolute bejeezus out of you. Consider the premise of Danse Macabre, which means, if you haven’t guess it yet, “dance of death.” The Reaper rouses himself out of bed at midnight on Halloween, summons the skeletons from the grave, and they all boogie down to dawn.
Even long before Saint-Saëns’s tone poem came along, woodcuts were common throughout Europe at Halloweentime featuring a plowman walking to the field to resume his endless toil, and the Reaper sidling up next to him and saying something like, “hey, this burden, this hard life, it can all be over just like that, come over here with me by this hayrick and have a rest.” That’s where this music springs from, and that’s no Ben Cooper costume conceit.
Saint-Saëns signals the arrival of midnight with a harp picking out 12 notes. A violin begins a wicked canter, a flute instigates a second theme, and these themes, distributed over the other instruments of the orchestra, dance with each other with grim inevitability, what you might fancy the rhythm of a ghost story. A quote from the Dies Irae (the scary bit in requiems) is flown in, and when the two themes mesh, at the piece’s loudest, most rhythmically intense point, it’s like, “do your thing, sun, get back up in that sky, and end this horror.”
Relief comes with an oboe signaling the cock’s cry, and everyone, presumably, gets back into their graves, dance over. But this is the real Halloween cask-strength stuff, and a reminder, of sorts, as well. Sure, everyone gets a birthday, and then you dance through life the best you can—but everyone gets a death day, too. How do you like bobbing for them apples?