Danses macabres

"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."

-extract from text for Saint-Saƫns' Danse Macabre.


On old one-arm, black scaffolding,
The hanged men dance;
The devil's skinny advocates,
Dead soldiers' bones.

Beelzebub jerks ropes about the necks
Of small black dolls who squirm against the sky;
With slaps, with whacks and cuffs and kicks
He makes them dance an antique roundelay!

Excited jumping jacks, they join thin arms;
Black organ lofts, their fretwork breasts
That once beat fast at beauteous damsels' charms
Now clack together in a perverse embrace.

Hurrah the jolly dancers, whose guts are gone!
About the narrow planks they jerk and prance!
Beelzebub roars the rasping fiddles' song!
Hop! They cannot tell the battle from the dance!

Hard heels, that never wear out shoes!
They've all put off their overcoat of skin;
What's left beneath is hardly worth excuse -
Their skulls are frail and white beneath the rain.

A crow provides a crest for these cracked heads,
A strip of flesh shakes on a skinny chin;
They swing about in somber skirmishes
Like heroes, stiff, their armor growing thin.

And the breeze blows for the skeletons' ball!
The gibbet groans like an organ of iron;
In violet forests the wolves wail;
The distant sky flames with hell's own fires!

Oh, shake me these dark commanders down!
Who slyly rake through broken fingertips
Love's rosary across their pale ribs:
This is no monastery, you dead men!

And there in the midst of the danse macabre
One wild skeleton leaps in the scarlet clouds,
Stung with madness like a rearing horse
With the rope pulled stiff above his head.

He tightens bony fingers on his cracking knees
With squeals that make a mock of dead men's groans,
And, like a puppet floating in the breeze,
Whirls in the dance to the sound of clacking bones.

On old one-arm, black scaffolding,
The hanged men dance;
The devil's skinny advocates,
Dead soldiers' bones.

-"The Hanged Men Dance," Arthur Rimbaud, very loosely translated by Paul Schmidt

The dance lasts for about a minute and a half, and begins around 55 seconds in:

More "danses macabre" here, here, and here.

Top picture: Remedios Varo,"Les Feuilles Mortes", inspired by its use here.


Sam juliano said...

This is quite an original and fascinating post here Joel, and I hope many come and visit. I always think of the skeleton scenes in Harryhausen's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. I am a huge fan of Saint_saens's ton epoem, prominently featured here.

Joel Bocko said...

Not surprising knowing your love for classical music. Yep, there've been lots of great variations on this theme...

Stephen said...


Given that this is Winter Olympic year, I thought I'd post a performance to Danse Macabre by the world's greatest ice skater Kim Yu Na:


Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Stephen - nice to see figure skating with a bit darker edge ;)