Greetings, spookyfriends; are you surviving the polar vortex? It’s going to be very cold again tonight in Chicago (less so in L.A.; be relieved, Michael), the kind of night when you want mulled wine and sad music while watching the flames dance in the fireplace. Makes you wonder what sad, lonely spirits would dance to on a night like this.
And what would the spirits dance to at a formal Grimm ball? Well, they’d probably take a page fron the Finns, who dance to tango music during the winter because they’re depressed. Or maybe because it keeps them from being depressed in winter (seasonal affective disorder, don’t you know, with so little sunlight; one does sympathize). There is such a thing as Finnish tango, BTW — really not kidding about that (would even a part-time deejay kid about music?! Heavens, no). It’s almost exclusively played in minor keys, unlike the original Argentinian version. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “The central themes of Finnish tango lyrics are love, sorrow, nature and the countryside. … The changing seasons of Finnish nature are frequently used metaphors … Autumn rains and dark evenings are symbols of crushed hopes.” Wow, really depressing; and yet, it’s somehow endearing that the Finns should take such fiery tempos and tame them for their own purposes. They even have a tango festival in mid-summer. You can read all about moody Finnish tango in a New York Times feature article from July 2013.
And yet, I imagine spirits waltzing, gliding slowly and gracefully, and yes, mournfully. For whatever reason, that’s the image I formed in my head when I first heard Finnish composer Jean Sibelius‘s Valse Triste, as played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the late conductor Leonard Bernstein. It seems I was intuitively on the right track: Valse Triste was originally part of the incidental music that Sibelius wrote in 1904 for Kuolema (Death), a play written by his brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt; however, it is most often played as a concert piece.
The scene in the play wherein the music occurs is this: one night, a young son is watching over his mother, who is very ill and sleeping restlessly in her bed. The exhausted son falls asleep; but his mother, dreaming of a ballroom full of formally dressed strangers, rises from her bed clad in a white nightgown and begins to dance across the floor. There is faint music in the distance. In her dream, the mother watches the shadowy dancers waltz slowly across the floor, but not one will look her in the eye; she tires easily and seems bent on returning to her bed as the music fades — but no, she rises again, the music resumes, and the spooky couples dance ever more energetically, until finally there is a knock on the door, which stops everything. The door flies open, and there stands Death, wearing the face of the ill woman’s deceased love, her husband. He has come for her.
Now I ask you: is that creepy and sad, or what? Believe me, it’s far creepier and more stately when you think about this while listening to the music. Valse Triste from Kuolema, Op. 44, has been rereleased on an album by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic titled Nocturne (night music — how appropriate!). I think the vinyl Columbia Records LP that my parents had of Bernstein’s on which Valse Triste was recorded was the one that also had Finlandia and The Swan of Tuonela on it along with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites 1 & 2; I’m not sure, but I do recall that I was immediately mesmerized by it and played it to death (so to speak) on the sly. That compilation was rereleased in 1981. Valse Triste is also on the most recent Bernstein Century series recording that also features those tracks in addition to Grieg’s Norwegian Dance and March of the Trolls. (For those who don’t know, Finlandia is sort of the unofficial national anthem of finland; Sibelius’s music had much to do with stirring Finnish national cultural consciousness. And it’s much more enthusiastic than Valse Triste.)
Others have picked up on this emotion about the song. In the 1934 film Death Takes A Holiday, in which Death (played by Fredric March) poses as a young man and falls in love, Valse Triste is playing in the background during a scene in the mansion where Death dances with a young woman named Grazia. That film was later remade in 1998 as Meet Joe Black, with Brad Pitt starring as the intrigued Death personified and Claire Forlani as the young woman (in that film, Death takes the form of a young man who’s already met her and is struck in an accident; but after falling in love with her, Death lets the young man live and takes her father instead). Whoa. That’s enough drama for me.
I’ll take that mulled wine now. Stay warm, spookypals.
Your own spooky mixmistress,