Tomorrow is officially Halloween, and people have been celebrating the holiday and dealing with it, in their minds, for thousands of years, through the use of the arts.
Ironically, it isn't tomorrow which was the original holiday, it's the day after tomorrow. For well more than a thousand years, Nov. 1 has been celebrated as the Feast of All Saints, or All Hallows. Before the birth of Christ, a number of cultures worshipped many different gods and/or goddesses, and there was always a concern that there might be one or more deities whose ire might be raised by being overlooked.
So, they celebrated a holiday with a name similar to ''The feast of the unknown gods.''
When the Christian era began, the Church began to reverence saints, or people who led lives which can be taken as an example for the rest of us to follow. Some people attribute to saints' special powers to reward humans with healing or success at their efforts, and to punish those who are seen as unworthy.
The largest Christian faith - the Roman Catholic Church - has always said that the Church does not make people saints. They investigate whether the individual has led a life worthy of being an example and call the person a saint if he or she is discovered to have been one.
Nov. 1 has come to be a day on which it is appropriate to reverence those who have led exemplary lives, and for some, the day has taken on the role of the feast of the unknown gods - a way to hedge one's bets against angering the wrong heavenly figure.
In the long centuries of the Middle Ages, when most people couldn't read or write and lessons had to be taught by capturing the imagination, often with music or stories, on the evening before All Hallows Day, religious groups would dress individuals up as frightening things. Examples might be people dressed as murder victims or victims of various diseases, as greed and lust and all the deadly sins.
Then at midnight, as All Hallows Day arrived, people dressed as various saints would emerge from the church. The illiterate public was taught from birth to recognize specific saints by a symbol which would be carried by the saint, or be held above his head or painted on the wall behind him. St. Peter would carry a key, for example. St. Joseph would carry a rose.
The people dressed as saints would drive away the people dressed as bad things, and the lesson would be re-confirmed. Through the power of choosing to live good lives, evil can be overcome.
Naturally, no lesson has ever been taught by human design which wasn't mislearned by someone. The idea that midnight on Oct. 31 is a time of scary things has somehow slipped into a number of minds, as well. And we call it All Hallow Evening, or Hallowe'en.
One of the many artistic efforts to understand and support the holiday is the Danse Macabre. I'd like to use this week's column to comment on the Danse, with the realization that the term has somewhat different meanings for visual art than it does for historians, and somewhat different meanings for musicians than for visual artists or for historians.
Our goal is to show you a connection between the fine arts and everyday life, not to claim that any one interpretation of the concept is the only one to be accepted.
Our local classical music radio station, WNJA, which is a partner with WNED, in Buffalo, recently held an event in which listeners were invited to send in their remembrances of how they first came to love classical music.
I didn't send my memories in to the station, but I remember exactly when I found classical music to be a vital part of my life.
I've always loved music. My parents played records and listened to the radio. My grandmother sang, and my sister took piano lessons, as I eventually did. It was accepted in our family that a child's hands weren't large enough to play the piano before he was seven years old.
In first grade, I had an art teacher named Mrs. Richardson. Like all teachers, she was constantly in search of a way to slip her lessons into our little brains, past the virtual Niagara River of pressure from the culture around us, encouraging us to believe that art and learning weren't ''cool,'' and that any of it we did learn made us weird and contemptible.
As the calendar was approaching Halloween, Mrs. Richardson encouraged us to draw spooky things. To fire up our imaginations, she got out one of those scratchy phonographs with a speaker, completely separate from the turntable, except for an umbilical cable between the two. Those things were still to be found in school rooms more than 30 years later.
She told us the story behind Camille Saint-Saens' tone poem ''Danse Macabre,'' then she put the disk onto the turntable and started it playing. I remember exactly how I felt at that moment.
The Danse Macabre is the French form of what is called the Dance of Death in English, the Totentanz in German, and something similar in just about every language on the planet.
The basic idea is that each of us, rich or poor, powerful or weak, healthy or sickly, young or old, may be called at any moment to dance with death. In visual art, a personification of death, usually a skeleton, is seen, drawing people from all walks of life into a lively, irresistible dance, which leads inevitably to the grave.
Especially in those days before the discovery of antibiotics, nutrition, and the many medical treatments which are available to us today, people often found death, completely unexpected, in the winking of an eye. Portrayals of the Danse typically show people in recognizable social roles, including kings, Popes, merchants, women, children, and common laborers, all being drawn irresistibly into the dance by skeletal figures.
In 1872, the composer Saint-Saens came to hear a poem, written by Henri Cazalis. It tells the story that at midnight on Oct. 31, death itself comes to the graveyard and begins to play the violin. At the sound of his playing, the graves open and the dead come out to dance, while winds howl and animals screech, and there is a great democracy, with noblewomen dancing with common laborers, and the like.
Eventually the rooster crows, and the dead have to scurry back to their graves for another year, while death packs his fiddle and departs in haste. The poem ends, ''What a beautiful night for the poor world. Long live death and equality.''
The composer created a song from the poem, which incorporated all of its words. Within a year, he had orchestrated the work into the better-known tone poem for a full orchestra. The chiming of midnight which begins the work is plucked on a single D-string of a harp.
A violin tuned with the E-string a half tone lower than normal begins to play a tritone, sawing out an irritating alternation between E-flat and A natural. That specific interval was often described as ''the Devil's chord'' or ''the Devil's interval,'' and was believed capable of making black magic.
The lower strings pluck out notes intended to represent the dead, creeping out of their graves, and then there begins a gloomy and yet irresistibly elegant waltz. Occasionally wind howls in the background. A xylophone plays a merry melody, representing the clanking of the bones, as the skeletons dance. Interestingly, the composer borrows his skeleton music from the ''fossils'' movement of his own ''Carnival of the Animals.''
Eventually a crowing is heard, followed by frantic playing as the dancers flee in panic from the rays of the dawning sun, and then everything crashes to a halt.
The music wasn't wildly popular. Many people found it simply too frightening. Others claim it deliberately evoked blasphemous images in the listener.
Nevertheless, Franz Liszt transcribed the work as a piano solo. Vladimir Horowitz produced a version for the violin. The composer Lemaire created a version to be played on the pipe organ.
Today, it's often used. It was a frequent theme on the television series ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' for example. A number of video games incorporate its haunting sounds. It's used in any number of commercial films. Even Henrik Ibsen has his character Hedda Gabler play the Liszt version of the music on her piano, before committing suicide with her father's pistol.
But the lesson for me, back in that classroom in 1954, was that while all music could be pleasant and enjoyable, some music had the power to seize hold of my thinking and to take it out of my control, producing new realities. All music could be good, but some music was brilliant. And I've never looked back.
CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION
It never fails to impress me how badly people can mis-interpret works of art. This seems to be true even of people who are accomplished in the arts and who earn their living in them.
During the past week, I came to see the most recent film from Merchant Ivory Productions. The title is ''The City of Your Final Destination.'' It's based on a novel by the same name, written by Peter Cameron. It is the first film to emerge from Merchant Ivory since the death of Ismail Merchant, who was the producer of most of the company's films.
As has happened with all of the company's releases, even ''A Room with a View,'' and ''Howard's End,'' a number of people rushed into print to complain that nothing happens in the film - that it puts the viewer to sleep.
Indeed, some films are more action-oriented than others. The hero shoots the villain. After months of training, the runner wins - or loses - the race. Events.
This film introduces a number of nuanced, complex characters. Each of them is changed by interaction with the people around them. Some are pleased by their own changes, while others are dismayed. When you think of it, which is more like real life?
The majority of the film is set at a large collection of buildings in Uruguay. The ''farm'' - for want of a better name - was the final home of a German novelist named Jules Gund. Gund's parents came to South America to escape the rise of the Nazis in their German homeland, bringing with them as much of their wealth as they could get out of Germany.
Living in South America with his wife, and eventually joined by a mistress he has acquired, along with a daughter by the mistress, Gund shared what was left from his parents' wealth with his brother.
There, Gund wrote and published his only novel, called ''The Gondola.'' Eventually, the writer committed suicide, leaving brother, wife, mistress and daughter, essentially trapped on his farm. They have enough money to live together in the simple economy of rural Uruguay, but not enough to move to a more populous place and establish a way of life.
The film begins in Kansas, where a young graduate student named Omar is trying to write a biography of Gund. He has written a thesis on the dead writer, and has obtained a fellowship to teach in his university and to work on publishing a definitive biography.
The trustees of Gund's estate are his widow, his mistress, and his brother. Without their permission, he can't use photos or artifacts which once belonged to the writer, nor will any of his associates, colleagues, etc. respond to questions from the biographer.
Omar has written to the trustees and has received a letter from them, refusing permission to write the biography. If the book isn't written, Omar will lose his teaching fellowship, he won't complete his degree, and he will probably be considered unqualified to work again in academics, ever. The idea that throughout our system, a gifted teacher isn't judged by his teaching but by his writing is just one of a great many issues which are subtly dropped into our thinking as the film progresses.
He is prepared to accept their rejection, but his fiancee, Deidre, takes charge of the matter. She convinces Omar to travel to Uruguay and to confront the three strangers. Clearly, he is used to having Deidre make his decisions and order his life. Lacking money, a strong drive, and the ability to speak much Spanish, Omar heads off. And then, he moves into the house and stays.
Omar's biography has one big attraction for the novelist's survivors. It will inspire sales for his only published book, which will give them money to leave the beautiful but primitive farm and return to their own lives. But, none of them is all that certain that they have the courage or the inspiration to leave the lovely and comfortable safety of their obscure lives.
The cast is outstanding.
Anthony Hopkins portrays the dead writer's brother. Laura Linney is his emotionally cold but far from monstrous widow. Charlotte Gainsbourg is the mistress.
Egyptian-American actor Omar Metwally plays the diffident biographer. Alexandra Maria Lara is brilliant as the aggressive Deidre.
We resent her pushing of Omar, but we clearly understand that he has chosen her into his life for exactly that quality.