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“The Devil has all the best tunes,” goes an old English saying reflecting the fact that although many feel music is a divine gift, there are some who deem it the work of the Devil. “Can minstrels ever hope to attain eternal life?” asked the influential and erudite 12th-century ecclesiastic Henri d’Autun. “Certainly not,” he replied to his own question, “for they are the Devil’s ministers.”

The power of music to seduce—to cause such intoxication that the “sinner” sinks into lust, and thereby to eternal damnation—has been a cause for concern throughout history. Even today, rock and roll stars—our modern minstrels—are often accused of being in Satan’s employ.

In the Renaissance, frescos began to appear on cemetery walls depicting a procession of skeletons seeking out members of every level of society, leading them one by one to their final resting place. Following a hierarchical order, this sinister farandole visited everyone: the Pope, the emperor and his vassals, the bourgeoisie, merchants, artisans, and the most humble of peasants. The message was clear: everyone is equal in death, and sinners, whatever their status among the living, will end up in Hell. Leading this cortege were often skeleton musicians, which is why this type of scene, later to enjoy great vogue among engravers, was given the name danse macabre, or “dance of death.” Indeed, it was probably engravings of this type that inspired Camille Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poem of the same name and that seem to find an ironic reflection here in Ravel’s Sérénade grotesque for piano.
Some scholars maintain that these frescos in fact depict a costumed ceremonial dance that during the Middle Ages celebrated in half-pagan half-Christian fashion the Day of the Dead. In Anglo-Saxon regions, this would subsequently fuse with other traditions, eventually evolving into modern Halloween. In some later engravings, the orchestra accompanying the funeral cortege is made up not of skeletons but of animal musicians. And of this strange bestiary, Halloween adopted the bat and the spider, the hideous and inevitable “squatters” of haunted houses, old cemeteries, and other abandoned burial places such as the catacombs in one of the tableaux of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
In humanity’s collective unconscious, the spider web evokes Death’s inescapable net and the dread that he will sooner or later feast upon us, an ancient fear born of the thought that our bodies are consumed by vermin when we die. In 1913, a “spider’s feast” was suggested as a ballet theme for Diaghilev’s famous Ballets russes. Not without humour, Albert Roussel created a highly refined orchestral score for the work.
Other later engravings depict women of all ages, each escorted by a skeleton representing death. Among these women, the young girl taken in the prime of life evokes ancient mythological figures such as the beautiful Eurydice, whom Death stole from her beloved Orpheus. The story is all the more tragic because even after using his musical prowess to charm the guardian of the underworld, he is unable to bring back his lover to the land of the living. But not all the variants of this legend end sadly. In the “Ritual Fire Dance” from Manuel De Falla’s ballet Love, the Magician (El Amor Brujo), arranged here for cello and strings, after a night of incantations and spells, the lovers once separated by death are reunited at dawn.
The theme of “death and the maiden” eventually freed itself from its ancient origins, and from the Renaissance danses macabres, to prosper in its own right, both in the visual arts and also in poetry and music. “Pass by, Oh pass by! Go away, savage man of bone! I am yet young. Go away, and do not touch me!” exclaims the young woman in Matthias Claudius’ poem “Death and the Maiden,” which Franz Schubert set as a lied in 1817. Seven years later, he used the melody again for the theme and variations of the slow movement of what would become his best known string quartet.
If musicians, able to carry away their audiences to the point of losing their senses, were often accused of being Satan’s ministers, the instruments they played did not escape censure either. In the 14th century, one church official maintained that the flute represented the serpent of Genesis, and that its whistling sound represented the tempting words which led to the fall of Adam and Eve. The snake-like contortions of the fervently playing flautist were simply further evidence that music was indeed the work of the Devil.
However, at the beginning of the Baroque period, a new instrument appeared that garnered even more suspicion: the violin. Perhaps it was with derision that Giuseppe Tartini told of how his famous sonata, nicknamed “Devil’s Trill,” had been inspired by a visit in a dream from Lucifer himself. By the 19th century, the figure of the possessed violinist had taken a firm hold of the Romantic imagination. Both here in Québec and in Europe, numerous legends told of such a figure running off with the bride or the village’s most desirable maiden.
Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, himself an excellent violinist, took up this motif in his Faust, one of the best versions of the myth after that of Goethe. Unlike Goethe’s Mephistopheles, who bewitches Faust by having him drink a love potion so that he falls in love with the first woman he meets, Lenau’s Mephistopheles takes the discouraged scholar to a village wedding. There, he uses his devilish violin to enchant the entire gathering and cause Faust to fall in love with a girl he sees at random in the crowd. In an intoxicating waltz, Faust leads the girl to a nearby forest and seduces her. It is this selection of German poetry (see inset) that Liszt set to music in the most well-known of his Mephisto Waltzes. Closer to home, Quebec composer François Dompierre also evoked this figure of Québec folklore in his delightful Diableries for violin and piano. On the other hand, the Spaniard Castelnuovo-Tedesco, employs a flamenco setting, transforming the violinist into a guitarist in his Capriccio diabolico.

If the flute, violin or guitar can express the power of seduction so willingly attributed to the Devil, the organ is the instrument best suited to evoking the power of Hades itself. And there are few better examples of this in the popular imagination than J. S. Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Ironically, it was composed for a church service, and the young organist, then at the beginning of his career, caused quite a stir among the parishioners with this composition. In the minutes of the town council, Bach is given a severe reprimand for the manner in which he improvises preludes. Was he being reproached for overdoing it? But a few weeks later, he is reprimanded once more for no longer doing enough. Which just goes to show that Bach, while a saint of a man, had the devil of a character…

© Guy Marchand
Translation: Peter Christensen

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AN 2 9286
Angèle Dubeau & La Pietà
AN 2 9286
AN 2 9286

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