I entertain a deep fascination with the many different ways in which humans meditate on their own relationship to death and mortality, and how they reflect on their own transience in the face of that immense entity of deafening permanence and stability: death. Because even within religious traditions where death is itself transitory, such as Christianity, there has long been a conscience that death marks something definite and, even if it should prove to be only a transition, that death is an endpoint that no one escapes.
The engagement with transient man versus the permanent erasure of death has been the subject of many great cultural expressions. Medieval imagery abounds with meditations on death, resulting in such gloriously morbid concepts and the dance macabre, or the transi tombs which display both the intact body and the rotting corpse in stone for all to see. These are of course connected to the idea of memento mori, that constant reminder of mortality that permeates so much of Christian culture. The memento mori furthermore highlights the anxiety about memory and death, which is a cornerstone in the logic behind impressive funerary monuments. One of the most beautiful meditations on the memorial aspect can be found in Sir Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall from 1658.
One of my favourite modern expressions of the relationship between death and man is the painting shown below, the self portrait with death playing the fiddle in the background by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. I particularly like the way Böcklin has rendered his own face, caught in the realization that Death is standing behind him, playing one-knows-not-what tune, possibly as a reminder of the painter's own mortality.
Self portrait with death as a fiddler
Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), 1872, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
(Courtesy of Wikiart)
Böcklin's choice of giving Death the fiddle as an interesting one, and although I do not know what thought lies behind that choice, it is worth noting that the fiddle have at times been regarded as an instrument proper of the Devil. One of the most famous stories which connect the fiddle and the Devil is that of the Devil's Trill Sonata by Guiseppe Tartini (1692-1770). The story, given to us by Tartini himself, tells us that the composer had a dream in which the Devil was playing the fiddle, and upon waking Tartini tried to reproduce the music, which he stated "was but a shadow of what he had witnessed in the dream", to quote Britannica.
Guiseppe Tartini, The Devil's Trill Sonata (Violin Sonata in G minor)
Another musical piece which connects the Devil and the fiddle is the Norwegian traditional known as Fanitullen (the Devil's song, "Fan" or "Fanden" meaning "The Devil" in Norwegian and Danish). The piece is known from the nineteenth century, and was the subject of several reworkings. The story behind the song was written down, and edited, by Jørgen Moe (1813-82), a Norwegian priest and collector of fairy tales. According to the legend, the song had been played by the Devil at a wedding in Hallingdal in Norway. The song was played during a fistfight at the wedding, and the Devil played while he sat on a barrel of beer.
Fanitullen, Norwegian traditional
Performed by Christian Borlaug
As a final installment in this series of death and music, I also want to point to the song Self Portrait by Rainbow from their debut album in 1975. Here there is no fiddle, but the theme of personal damnation and its title brings us back to the opening of the blogpost which began with the self portrait with Death as a fiddler.
Self Portrait, Rainbow
From the album Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow (1975)
Three Meditations on Mortality
Et in Arcadia ego
The Vanity topos