Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Post Number Eight: Danse Macabre

Of Graveyards

I am not too fond of French composers in general. Take Offenbach: nice to the ear (to some extent) but totally pointless (my personal opinion is that it's quite cretin, to be precise). Maybe because his music was supposed to be played while girls dressed in sexy clothes lifted their skirts and showed their legs and other feminine parts of their body to the (male) audience - a form of entertainment that is very Parisienne and very close to many contemporary forms of amusement that totally fail to amuse me. Anyway (luckily) not all French composers are like Offenbach. I have a sincere esteem for Camille Saint-Saƫns. Among his creations there is one called Danse Macabre, or Dance of the Dead. It intends to be descriptive of a specific scene in a very literal way. It begins with twelve bell rings, marking midnight. A pizzicato depicts the steps of the Grim Reaper entering an old graveyard. Then the Grim Reaper takes a violin, starts playing a gruesome dance, and slowly the dead begin to rise from their graves. They join the Grim Reaper and dance to his violin, ghosts and rotten corpses, and skeletons alike. It is quite amusing how the composer tried to describe skeletons through hard wooden sounds and ghosts through distant bells and cimbals. It is intended as a sort of black humour composition, reminding very much of the style of the Addams Family, if you know what I mean. The composition ends with a cock-a-doodle-doo marking the sunrise. The dead return to their graves and the Grim Reaper leaves the Graveyard. Perhaps to return?

I have always had a certain fascination with graveyards, but Italian Catholic Cemeteries are not very much the type I favor. In catholic graveyards, a high wall normally prevents you from entering the place (or even viewing it from the outside), and usually you are only allowed in when the local priest intends you to visit your dead. That's mostly during certain hours of certain days of certain weeks depending on the priest's rules. Inside, there is little room for grass of trees. Everything is crystal clean, tombstones are arranged in perfect order side by side, with their shiny marbles taken care of for precisely 20 years by the local priest. After 20 years (normally, but sometimes more) the body of your beloved deceased is taken off the grave to leave room to new bodies and incinerated. The cinders are then collected by the priest and secluded in a designated locale together with the cinders of other long-gone humans, for you to pay a visit (according to the priest's time schedule). Not really my idea of graveyard.
A graveyard should be open and relatively removed from the cityscape. Possibly, it should be visited at night, in a cold, humid night of late November, when the only, twisted-trunk trees have lost their leaves to the aging Autumn. The old tombstones should look as ancient as the date they annouce implies, and simple granite should replace expensive marbles. Possibly, they should be erected and not placed horizontally as they do in Catholic cemeteries. And of course, the dead bodies should be left in the place they were buried.

Places like this, of course exist, and I have been lucky enough to visit one in the right moment of the night and of the year.
Thanks to a gorgeous girl I know of (gorgeous in many senses) I had the opportunity to visit a city called Glasgow, which happens to be on a European island of ancient history and tradition called Great Britain, and more precisely in the Northern part of this island, which is normally known with the historically evocative and charming name of Scotland. The people of Scotland have a great advantage over the people of Italy: they are not Catholic. Therefore their graveyards are not Catholic either. The Scots (a warm and lively people themselves) seem to have an innate good taste for creepy, disquieting locales, which is especially true for their graveyards; thanks to my friend, I was led to a hill in Glasgow, on the top of which there laid one of the most charming graveyards I have ever seen. It could be that my memory is adding some flavor to this, but I recall it being a cold, humid night, and the tombstones were particularly huge, standing at least 6 feet tall, which made them look even more charming due to the foggy atmosphere. I think I will recall that graveyard trip as one of the most impressive sight-seeing tours of my life (which include the previous night's visit to another, lovely graveyard in Edinburgh, although in that case it happened that we were locked inside the locale, and had some trouble figuring a way out - although fascinating, I wasn't too inclined to spend the entire night in the company of a charming girl and a hundred dead bodies - at least, I could do without the dead bodies).
Graveyards are terribly charming, I believe. I keep thinking of that graveyard in Scotland when I listen to the Danse Macabre, and I wonder if the Grim Reaper ever passed by that place, at midnight, and had the skeletons dance at the sound of its violin...