Hallows 2014: All Saints’ Day

When the Saints Go Marching In
Traditional Christian hymn popularized by Louis Armstrong in the 1930s

So if you go way back to the Middle Ages, today is the real holiday. The early Christian church began designating saints, and over time churches developed the practice of holding a feast day to honor each saint. With more time, towns began trading feasts and relics for each others’ saints, and eventually the church decided to pick a day to honor all the saints together, and now we have All Saints’ Day. It was often called Hallowmas because it featured the mass for the hallowed (i.e., holy)—in this case, the holy saints. Thus “all hallows eve,” the day before, is where the term and holiday of Halloween comes from. All Saints’ Day is, according to the Catholic Church, for all those who have obtained a beatific vision of heaven. All Souls’ Day (tomorrow, November 2) is for all the souls who have died but haven’t been purified and gone to heaven yet.

There are some lovely hymns, such as “For All the Saints” to go along with All Saints’ Day. I decided, however, to go with a selection that has no confirmed connection but a great history. “When the Saints Go Marching In” was originally a slow, reflective hymn in the American gospel tradition. When Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1938, it kicked off a new jazz standard. Several artists have recorded it since from Elvis to Tears for Fears. In New Orleans it was often played at funerals, as a dirge on the way to the cemetery and then in its more commonly known Dixieland style on the way back from the gravesite. Party on—the dead is now one of the saints to go marching in, perhaps? It became so popular that some jazz musicians began dreading it as a request and called it “The Monster.” The Preservation Hall in New Orleans charged $1 for standard requests, $2 for unusual requests, and $5 for “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Maybe they were tired of the same ol’, same ol’, so I leave you with an arrangement that shakes things up for this song: “When the Saints Go Marching In” in ten different styles.


Hallows 2014, Day 7: Dance Macabre

Danse Macabre
Camille Saint-Saëns

So the term “danse macabre” goes way, way back. In the medieval tradition, personified Death summoned everybody to the party, from all walks of life, to head over to graves. It’s like when Hamlet asks Horatio at the gravediggers plot if Alexander the Great also looked like these discarded skulls, and they affirm, “Even so.” Here’s a 1493 depiction below.



In this musical depiction by Saint-Saëns, Death is represented by the solo violin. The clock chimes twelve times for midnight, and the dance begins. Then, when the cock crows and morning comes, you can hear them all scatter at the end. I have memories of my mom playing this in orchestra and pointing out all of the narrative parts.

Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

Hallows 2014, Day 6: Ghostbusters

Ray Parker, Jr., 1984

Who ya gonna call? Okay, so this year is the 30th anniversary of the movie (and eponymous song) Ghostbusters. That means people have been swaggin’ with, “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” since I can remember Halloween. Here a few fun facts:

  • By “fun” facts, I mean litigious. Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker, Jr. for ripping off Lewis’ 1983 song “I Want a New Drug” in writing “Ghostbusters.” Have a listen here—they are pretty similar. Plus you can see Huey’s high-waisted, pleated red pants and check out some suh-weet 1980s leg warmers.
  • Parker got the idea for the song while watching a cheap local commercial on late-night TV.
  • The song hit #1 on the charts on August 11, 1984 and was nominated for an Academy Award but lost to Stevie Wonder’s, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” It also hit #1 on the charts in Spain, btw.

Okay, ready for some random NYC trivia? The movie used the exterior of NYFD Hook & Ladder No. 8 for filming, but the interior in the movie is from Fire House no. 23 in LA.



Hook & Ladder 8 was nearly torn down a few years ago, but several people—most of whom were afraid of ghosts—protested and the city canceled its demolition plans. It’s located at the intersection of Varick and N. Moore St. North Moore St. is named for Benjamin Moore—not the paint company but the guy who was the second Episcopal bishop of New York; assistant rector at Trinity Church (yes, the cool one downtown); president of Columbia University; father of Clement Clarke Moore who wrote the poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”; and who, after some persuading because Alexander Hamilton wasn’t Episcopalian, administered communion to Hamilton just before he died from wounds suffered in the famous Hamilton-Burr duel. You know, that Benjamin Moore.

Bishop Benjamin Moore
Bishop Benjamin Moore

Guess what else has happened on N. Moore St.? There used to be a music shop where John Lennon and Yoko Ono performed; Zoolander was filmed there; and JFK, Lindsay Lohan, Ice Cube, and David Letterman have all lived there. There’s a buncha strange in this neighborhood!

Hallows 2014, Day 5: Der Erlkönig

If you were going to sit down and just focus on any song in this countdown, make it this one. Take four and a half minutes, and treat yourself. Follow along with the lyrics below, and enjoy being thoroughly spooked by the end (in a breathtakingly artistic way, of course). When I showed this to my students last week, the song ended, and they all looked up at me wide-eyed and slightly, deliciously horrified. I had the same reaction when I was introduced to this piece as an undergrad.

“Der Erlkönig”
Music by Franz Schubert, 1815; lyrics by Goethe

Schubert was precocious. By the time he died at the age of 31, he’d written over 600 lieder or German art songs, several chamber works, and nine symphonies. He pulled “Der Erlkönig” out of his hat when he was only 18, and it is among the best known and most celebrated songs of his 600 lieder.

“Der Erlkönig” tells the story of a father riding home late at night on his horse, holding his young son in his arms by his side. As they ride, the son cries out in fear of the Erlking (sometimes translated as the Elf King, sometimes not) who whispers in the son’s ear and wishes to steal him away.


Part of what makes “Der Erlkönig” fabulous is how the soloist and accompanist work together to paint the scene. The accompanist maintains a triplet pattern in the right hand throughout the piece that is, like the horse’s frantic galloping it represents, physically exhausting.

erlking piano

The soloist, meanwhile, covers four characters. In order of their appearance, they are:

  1. Narrator—middle register, minor mode
  2. Father—low register, minor mode; reassuring
  3. Son—high register, minor mode; frightened
  4. Erlking—medium range, major mode; coaxing, then insistent

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the soloist featured in this version, inflects each of these parts slightly differently, and watching him capture the characters while still not overacting is part of the genius of his performance. Notice that Schubert makes the Erlkönig frightening by putting his lines in a major mode, kind of like a scary clown. I love that this was effectively creepy back in 1815 too, 199 years ago.
So what happens in the story? Well, you have to listen and find out. Follow the text and English translation below.


NARRATOR (minor mode, middle range)

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
er fasst ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
Who rides so late through night and wind?
It is a father with his child;
he has the boy close in his arm,
he holds him tight, he keeps him warm.


FATHER (low range)

“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”
“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”


SON (high range)

“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron’ und Schweif?”
“Father, don’t you see the Erlking?
The Erlking with his crown and train?”


FATHER (low range)

“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.”
“My son, it is a streak of mist.”


ERLKING (major mode, melodic)

“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand;
meine Mutter hat manch’ gülden Gewand.”
“You dear child, come with me!
I’ll play very lovely games with you.
There are lots of colorful flowers by the shore;
my mother has some golden robes.”


SON (high range, frightened)

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”
“My father, my father, don’t you hear
the Erlking whispering promises to me?”


FATHER (low range, calming)

“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
in dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”
“Be still, stay calm, my child;
it’s the wind rustling in the dry leaves.”


ERLKING (major mode, cajoling)

“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir geh’n?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reih’n
und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”
“My fine lad, do you want to come with me?
My daughters will take care of you;
my daughters lead the nightly dance,
and they’ll rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”


SON (high range, dissonant outcry)

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort,
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”
“My father, my father, don’t you see
the Erlking’s daughters over there in the shadows?”


FATHER (low range, reassuring)

“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh’ es genau,
es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly,
it’s the gray sheen of the old willows.”


ERLKING (loving, then insistent)

“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt,
und bist du nicht willig, so brauch’ ich Gewalt.”
“I love you, your beautiful form delights me!
And if you’re not willing, then I’ll use force.”


SON (high range, terrified)

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids gethan!”
“My father, my father, now he’s grasping me!
The Erlking has hurt me!”


NARRATOR (middle register, speechlike)

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
erreicht den Hof mit Müh und Noth:
in seinen Armen das Kind war todt.
The father shudders, he rides swiftly,
he holds the moaning child in his arms;
with effort and urgency he reaches the courtyard:
in his arms the child was dead.

Hallows 2014, Day 4: Maleficent and Witches of Eastwick

Double feature today! Two for Tuesday or something.

“Maleficent’s Evil Spell”
George Bruns 1959, adapted from Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet Sleeping Beauty

The last fairy tale Disney would animate for approximately thirty years, Sleeping Beauty was an experiment with what some might term high-brow art. Eyvind Earle, the designer, envisioned the characters placed on a backdrop painted to evoke the more flat, two-dimensional, and intricately detailed style of medieval art (see below). A medieval image also provided the inspiration for Maleficent’s character. By the by, her name means “evil doing.”


Walt Disney personally hired George Bruns to write the score for the film, and Bruns used Tchaikovsky’s ballet of the same name for his inspiration. Not long before working on this romantically inspired score with its lush orchestration, Bruns also whipped out “The Ballad of Davy Crocket” which reached #1 on the charts and prompted a brief coonskin cap craze. These two works alone attest to Bruns’ creative range. He also wrote “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, the song “Love” for Robin Hood, and the score for Jungle Book, you know, with the singing vultures and orangutan. Bruns’ score for Sleeping Beauty was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Grammy.


“The Dance of the Witches” from the film score of The Witches of Eastwick
John Williams, 1987

Although this score is not as well known as many of John Williams’ others, many Williams aficionados regard it as one of his best; I think they’re on to something. You can hear the sportive, comedic elements of the movie, but the sound maintains a slightly menacing edge to it as well, from through the squatty undulating lower pitches throughout to the final violin shriek into the air that ends this selection. This film score was also nominated for both an Academy Award and a Grammy.

Hallows 2014, Day 3: The Devil Went Down to Georgia

The Devil Went Down to Georgia
Charlie Daniels Band, 1979

Sometimes in interviews Charlie Daniels said he didn’t know exactly where this song came from, that “it just did.” The song tells the story of the devil arriving in Georgia discouraged and ready to wager with young Johnny for his soul in a fiddling contest. If Johnny wins, he gets a gold fiddle for keepsies, also known as fiddle bling. If Johnny loses, the devil gets his soul. Personally, I think Johnny should have raised the stakes a bit or at least asked for something bigger, like maybe a gold cello. Anyway, the devil and his demons put up a mighty fight that includes a rock band sound, but Johnny whips out his fiddle in response and wins.

Fun fact: Patrick Swayze’s mom takes credit for setting the tempo of this song. It featured in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy for which she was choreographer. Purportedly, when Charlie Daniels asked how fast she could dance it, she replied by asking, “How fast can you play it?”

Enjoy this somewhat extended version of the Charlie Daniels Band playing it at the Grand Ole Opry.

Hallows 2014, Day 2: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath

Symphonie Fantastique, 5th movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath”
Hector Berlioz, premiered in Paris, 1830

This Sunday features a different sabbath of sorts: Are you ready for a trip? We’ve got unrequited love, Shakespearean dramatics, opium, poisoning—the whole creepy black kitten and kaboodle. This post is a bit longer, but give it a read. You won’t be disappointed.

Meet Hector.

Portrait of Berlioz in 1832 by Émile Signol
Portrait of Berlioz in 1832 by Émile Signol

First of all, can we please take a moment for his hair? I mean, it’s outstanding.

Meet Harriet.

Portrait of Harriet Smithson by Claude Dubufe (which strikes me as a fabulous last name), 1830
Portrait of Harriet Smithson in 1830 by Claude Dubufe (which strikes me as a fabulous last name)

It takes these two a while to meet each other. In 1827 on the still-fated day of September 11, Hector sees Harriet in Paris as she played the role of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Hector is a goner. He writes her a bunch of letters, but she never responds. He writes her a symphony, the Symphonie Fantastique, but when it premieres in 1830, she doesn’t come. In Harriet’s defense, she is kinda busy and kind of a big deal. The Irish actress is among the most sought-after actresses, is three years older than this upstart Hector, and she has a lot of fans to deal with.

Let’s take a look at what Harriet passed up. Berlioz composes a little theme that represents Harriet, and it shows up in all five movements of the symphony. It’s known as the idée fixe or “fixed idea” (read, “obsession”) of the symphony. Berlioz uses the symphony to tell a story: The first three movements portray the Artist’s (read, “Hector’s”) rêveries and passions, a lavish ball, and a beautiful pastoral scene. Then the Artist takes some opium and konks out. The fourth and fifth movements depict the Artist’s dreams while under the influence. In the fourth movement, the Artist dreams he has killed his beloved and is marched to the scaffold for his execution. Berlioz wrote in the Artist’s last thought of the beloved in the idée fixe (heard in the clarinet solo), the sound of the head being sliced off, even the sound of it rolling into the basket, and the audience cheering the event. No, really. You can hear that bit here.

So if the Artist dies in the fourth movement, what happens in the fifth? Halloween music is what happens. Entering the world of the dead, the Artist meets the unruly crowd of the underworld. They shriek and cavort, and they clearly pay homage to one figure in particular. It is she, but she’s a witch, the grandmammy witch of them all. The lovely idée fixe is ghoulishly distorted into a cackling jig (see the piece at 1:34). Bells toll (2:48)—hells bells, as my grandpa would say—and this witchy idée fixe mixes with the medieval funeral tune Dies irae (3:15) which represents the wrath of hellish suffering. You can hear both tunes throughout the movement. Berlioz pulls out all the stops; at one point the violins turn their bows and play on the wooden sticks to imitate the sound of bones jangling (8:16). Basically, the whole spooky party dances it out. Leonard Bernstein, who conducts the version posted here, said, “Berlioz tells it like it is. You take a [drug] trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” Harriet missed a good show.

By 1832, however, circumstances have changed. Harriet is out of money, and, defying the very meaning of the word “premiere”, Hector has somehow arranged for a second premiere of the symphony for his beloved. He sends her the best tickets, and she goes! The audience loves it. Harriet gets it. And finally, at long last, she agrees to meet him.

They get married.

But, shockingly, this now-celebrity marriage doesn’t go so well. They fight a lot and end up separating; in essence, they sort of act out the story Berlioz tells in the symphony. So this begs the question: was Berlioz just on a crazy opium trip when he wrote Symphonie Fantastique or was he prophetic? The moral of the story is that if you ever write a symphony, be careful what you compose.