Halloween: An Epic Journey to The Isle of the Dead

“A dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door.” ~ Arnold Böcklin

As our collective fascination with death prevails at this time of year, my thoughts drifted to Rachmaninoff’s evocative symphonic poem, The Isle of the Dead, completed in early 1909.

This haunting music was composed after Rachmaninoff had seen a black and white reproduction of the painting Isle of the Dead, exhibited in Paris two years earlier.

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

Black and White Photograph of Version 4

The original and subsequent versions of the Isle of the Dead paintings were created in colour by the romantic Swiss artist, Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901).

Between 1880 and 1886 he painted a total of five versions of his iconic Isle of the Dead. The original painting was commissioned by his patron, Alexander Günther which was spotted half-finished, sitting on an easel in his Florence studio by German widow Maria Berna. This is often referred to as the Basel version.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Basel Version)

She persuaded him to add the female figure and the draped coffin to the solitary rowing boat in memory of her deceased husband. Maria’s painting (version two) was a smaller painting (29 x 48 inches) of oil on wood, which now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Böcklin must have admired Maria’s idea as he then also added the figure and coffin to his original painting. These first two paintings were titled Die Gräberinsel (Tomb Island) by Böcklin. The enduring ‘Isle of the Dead’ name that all the versions now go by was suggested by art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883.

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin c. 1880 (Metropolitan Museum New York)

Painting number three was done in 1883 for Böcklin’s dealer Fritz Gurlitt. Beginning with this version, one of the burial chambers in the rocks on the right bears Böcklin’s own initials: A.B. The painting was sold in 1933 when it was acquired by Adolf Hitler, where it hung in the Berghof in Obersalzberg. After 1940 it was moved to the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Its less contentious home these days is in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version 3 c. 1883 (Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin)

Version number four, (upon which Rachmaninoff’s music is based), was created in 1884 due to financial pressures, and was bought by art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen. Luckily a black and white photograph was taken of the painting before it was destroyed by fire during World War II.

Rachmaninoff eventually got to see the fifth and final colour version (painted in 1886) at the museum of fine Arts in Leipzig. He commented that he much preferred the earlier black and white version and that he would not have been inspired to compose his opus 29 had he seen the colour version first instead.

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

Version 5 c. 1886 (Leipzig)

“When it came, how it began—how can I say? It came up within me, was entertained, written down.” ~ Sergei Rachmaninoff referring to his orchestral opus 29 in A minor, Isle of the Dead.

Possible inspiration

halloween-pondikonissi_islandIt has been proposed that the Greek islet of Pontikonisi near Corfu, with its Byzantine chapel and Cypress trees was the main inspiration for the painting, along with the high volcanic walls of Strombolicchio. Also the English Cemetery in Florence, where Böcklin’s infant daughter was buried served as the location for the painting of the first three versions. Another suggestion is St. George’s Island in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.

Overview of the music by Phillip Huscher for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra :

Rachmaninov begins with the irregular movement of oars in the water. (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, completed just four years earlier, also begins with the stroke of oars on a lake.) The opening is dark—just low strings, with timpani and harp at first—and mysterious. For a very long time, we move forward with little sense of destination, but with a growing urgency. (Tantalizing melodic fragments appear from time to time, like glimpses through the mist, and a haunting high violin theme takes wing at one point.)

Finally, the island comes into sight, the music gathers force and direction, and at last we hear the Dies Irae, the Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead—a motto of mortality that recurs often in Rachmaninov’s music. Then suddenly the music is suffused with life—urgent, passionate, and joyous. (Here Rachmaninov departs from the painting, although Böcklin did in fact paint a complementary Isle of Life two years after his last Isle of the Dead canvas.) But the Dies Irae rings out, and the music is again clouded in shadows. The ending is mostly still, and we are left where we began, with the sound of ceaseless rowing.

Two spine tingling versions:

Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:

An arrangement for 2 pianos sourced from my favourite treasure trove of classical music, with Zdeňka Kolářová and Martin Hrše of the Prague Piano Duo:

In honour of  Böcklin  and Rachmaninoff, as well as the historical origins of our modern interpretation of Halloween, I’ve written a few verses of my own:

Journey to The Isle of the Dead

Deep, melancholy chords escort me to the Isle of the Dead,

Remote, alabaster tombs protrude, rising from darkness and dread.

Monotonous oars glide through glassy, unfathomable depths…

No wind to rustle the sombre shroud of Cypress leaves,

Oil on canvas for widow Maria; a window to her dreams.


Reverent brush strokes paint entry to immortal sleep,

The fatal shore beckons: come, come, your soul to reap.

Cross the silent, still surface, to peace or purgatory…

Within the high, pale rock, lies the secret of eternity,

Destiny concealed from searching, inquisitive fervency.


Five versions, against muted backdrop of foreboding firmament

Greys and blues, softened by nebulous cloud; omnipotent.

Navigate lofty cemetery through the watery gates…

Sea and sky blend and merge, in subtle, never-ending horizon,

Arrival assured: but no departure possible, from Death’s Island.


Rhythmic notes on the stave narrate a deathly story,

Atmospheric melody; oppressive, mythical and eerie.

A final journey to the sea-bound realm beyond the living…

Corpses lay buried, side by side, forever to abide,

Within the endless cavern of souls; life doth hide.


Hallowed art and music, death’s mystery shall convey,

Sacred and ancient celebration – All Saints’ Day.

‘Samhain’ bids Gaelic farewell to light; to summer’s passing…

Hallow –e’en, from 18th century Scottish: ‘All-Hallows-Even’

Holy Eve before the rising; for death is conquered in heaven…

By Virginia Burges

Happy Halloween!

Dancing to Death’s Tune: The ‘Danse Macabre’

“Venite ad me, qui onerati estis.” (Come to me, all ye who labour and are heavy laden.)

Death lingers in the air at this time of year. Ghastly ghouls, wicked witches and spooky skeletons decorate shops, costumes and cakes, as everything occult fascinates society at Halloween. Perhaps it’s our way of confronting the inevitable, the journey of life towards the grave that no one particularly wants to talk about.

Frans Francken the Younger - Detail of Danse Macabre

Frans Francken the Younger – Detail of Danse Macabre

Halloween decorates death with a mostly comical slant; ergo it becomes more acceptable, slicing and dicing the edges from the fear and disgust of the decomposed, emaciated body, the dissolution of earthly life. We are reminded in a joking atmosphere that Death has become light hearted, transforming some people into what I would describe as necromaniacs!

Necromancy, dancing spirits and ghostly stories abound at this time of year, but underneath this creepy consumerism and fun there’s a deeper message lurking for anyone who dares to look harder.  Could it be modern society’s memento mori minus the seriousness of Christian theology?

Totentanz - Danse Macabre at St. Nicholas Church Tallin

Totentanz – Danse Macabre at St. Nicholas Church Tallin

It’s a subject people are loath to ponder, why would one meditate on one’s own demise? Yet the transience of life, the fragility of physical existence is all around us, we have all been touched by death’s tendrils in one form or another. Our ongoing mortality is grounds for practising gratitude, for no matter how bad things get, we are at least still breathing! It’s a stark reminder not to take our existence for granted.


Musically, culturally and artistically, the dance of death has its origins in medieval France. Dancing and death went hand in hand – the allegory of the longest sleep.

Hans Holbein - Nuremburg Chronicle c. 1493

Hans Holbein – Nuremburg Chronicle c. 1493

The Danse Macabre was designed to show us that no matter our station in life, whether lowly or exalted, death is the harbinger of equality; it eventually comes for us all, and one should consider one’s earthly activities in order to earn a spiritual meritocracy – aka eternal salvation, entrance into heaven/immortality.

Throughout medieval France and Europe the Danse Macabre/Totentanz was a serious message about the inevitability of death, packaged as entertainment (life was pretty grim for the ordinary folks), and was expressed in poetry, church murals, paintings, Hans Holbein’s woodcuttings and in religious hymns.

The Hundred Years War

The poor souls that inhabited Paris throughout the cruel and bitter civil war between the Armagnacs (those loyal to the French Royal Family and the Orléanist Lords) and the Burgundians (those loyal to the English Royal Family and Anglo-allied Burgundian Lords), experienced the intense suffering of a late Middle Ages power struggle, namely: famine, sieges, plagues, disease and extreme weather conditions, thus life expectancy was short. Very short.

The English Regent, John Duke of Bedford, ruled a stricken Paris in the years that followed the deaths of his ambitious brother, King Henry V of England and the mentally unstable Armagnac King Charles VI of France, (only seven weeks apart), when the Anglo-Burgundian alliance sought to rule over all of France.

Danse Macabre on the Charnier at Holy Innocent's Cemetery

Danse Macabre on the Charnier at Holy Innocent’s Cemetery

In the spring of 1425 the weary citizens of Paris witnessed the unveiling of a painting of the ‘Danse Macabre’ along the cloister walls of the city’s massive cemetery of the Holy Innocent’s, which depicted the grotesque figure of death leading a carnival of king, beggar, pope and peasant, mocking the pomp and power of earthly life in the face of certain death. It showed the people that the vanity of earthly riches and a sybaritic lifestyle was no protector from death’s grasp. They all marched towards the inevitable one-way door as equals, united in death’s all encompassing dark cloak…

That very first Danse Macabre mural was destroyed in 1669 when the wall was demolished. The copious corpses of medieval Paris were eventually relocated in a mass exhumation to the city’s catacombs due to the unsanitary conditions of the Holy Innocent’s in the late 18th century, and the church was also destroyed around this time.

The Holy Innocent's in Paris c. 1550 by Hoffbauer

The Holy Innocent’s in Paris c. 1550 by Hoffbauer

All that remains today is the original Fountain of Innocents, moved and rebuilt in the centre of the new market, now known as the Place Joachim-du-Bellay.

The music of La Danse Macabre

As music is the universal language; transcending time, religion and race, it has power over words alone in conveying a feeling, thought or message, hence ‘La Danse Macabre’ prises its fiendish way into the imagination…

The most famous of all is Camille Saint-Saëns’ richly evocative eponymous tone poem, Opus 40. First performed in 1875, the composition is based on the text of French poet Henri Cazalis:

Henri Cazalis - Danse Macabre

The opening chords of the solo violin are meant to put you on edge, and so it’s hardly surprising the work wasn’t as popular in the 19th century as it is today. I personally think those first startling, dissonant and jarring notes are pure genius when taken in the context of the subject matter. It also has a surprisingly jaunty and devilishly good melody that makes you want to dance death’s jig… I love to play it at home on my violin.

From Wikipedia:

According to legend, “Death” appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin). His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year. The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The solo violin enters playing the tritone consisting of an A and an E-flat—in an example of scordatura tuning, the violinist’s E string has actually been tuned down to an E-flat to create the dissonant tritone.

The first theme is heard on a solo flute, followed by the second theme, a descending scale on the solo violin which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The first and second themes, or fragments of them, are then heard throughout the various sections of the orchestra. The piece becomes more energetic and at its midpoint, right after a contrapuntal section based on the second theme, there is a direct quote played by the woodwinds of the Dies Irae, a Gregorian chant from the Requiem that is melodically related to the work’s second theme. The Dies Irae is presented unusually in a major key. After this section the piece returns to the first and second themes and climaxes with the full orchestra playing very strong dynamics. Then there is an abrupt break in the texture and the coda represents the dawn breaking (a cockerel’s crow, played by the oboe) and the skeletons returning to their graves.

Clara Cernat and Thierry Huillet give a fantastic performance on Violin and Piano:

I also love this orchestral version by Leopold Stokowski and the National Philharmonic Orchestra:

The Gromoglasova sisters do a chilling job on two pianos!

An inventive and lively arrangement for four violas by members of the Taiwan Viola Chamber Orchestra:

The Dance of Death is also portrayed in the 4th movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio in E minor, Opus 67.  A fine performance from Richter, Kagan and Gutman:

Dance of Death based on Mussorgsky:


Composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt had something of an obsession with death, it featured in quite a few of his compositions, but Totentanz is the most well-known.

Valentina Lisitsa gives a spine tingling rendition of Franz List’s Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra, Paraphrase on Dies irae:

Liszt’s arrangement for two pianos:

Sylvia Plath’s Poem Danse Macabre:

Down among the strict roots and rocks,

Eclipsed beneath blind lid of land

Goes the grass-embroidered box.


Arranged in sheets of ice, the fond

Skeleton still craves to have

Fever from the world behind.


Hands reach back to relics of

Nippled moons, extinct and cold,

Frozen in designs of love.


At twelve each skull is aureoled

With recollection’s tickling thorns

Winding up the ravelled mold.


Needles nag like unicorns,

Assault a sleeping virgin’s shroud

Till her stubborn body burns.


Lured by brigands in the blood,

Shanks of bone now resurrect,

Inveigled to forsake the sod.


Eloping from their slabs, abstract

Couples court by milk of moon:

Sheer silver blurs their phantom act.


Luminous, the town of stone

Anticipates the warning sound

Of cockcrow crying up the dawn.


With kiss of cinders, ghosts descend,

Compelled to deadlock underground.

I’d like to thank you for visiting my blog and wish you a happy Halloween!

Halloween Special: A Terrifying Tour of the Hell Fire Caves at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire…

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” ~ Dante Alighieri (Divine Comedy)

‘Tis a grisly tale of death, debauchery and sinister, secret goings-on, some 300 feet underground. I hope you are not faint of heart!

HFC facadeAs it’s Halloween this Friday I thought I would relay the hair-raising account of our family trip last Sunday into the depths of the Hell Fire Caves, not far from where I live.

We were fortunate to grab the last tour of the day (they only run these guided tours once a month), and our tour guide, Jack, had a flair for the dramatic. We imbibed his enthusiasm and knowledge of the infamous and secretive ‘Hell Fire Club’ from the moment we stepped into the damp, dark corridor beneath the stone frontage of the caves.

He began by explaining in a rather comical fashion about the House of Hanover and the four Georges who were monarchs in Georgian England. When he mentioned that George 3rd apparently rode invisible horses, my daughter Emily, said to him most earnestly, ‘So does my sister!’ I was glowing with pride! That set the tone for a scary, fun and fascinating 45 minutes to follow.

HFC entranceWe walked about fifty yards down the sloping tunnel, to learn that times were tough in 1747. The farmers of the village had suffered three consecutive failed harvests, and so the enterprising Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer paid around a hundred men who would have been agricultural workers around a shilling a day, to dig out the caves. Little did they know the profligate purposes he intended to use it for!

They began work at 4 am, armed with a pick axe and candle, and if they were lucky they were allowed ten minutes for a break and to consume some ale and bread during their gruelling twelve hours beneath the ground.  I’m sure they would have been grateful for the EU labour laws in place today.

The caves were completed in 1752 and reached about a quarter of a mile into the hillside. The displaced chalk was used to build a new road from West Wycombe to High Wycombe, now a section of the A40 from London to Oxford.

1752 was a fairly momentous year… Great Britain and the American colonies lost eleven days to the annoyance and bewilderment of its citizens, as the switch was made from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, which was already in use in other European countries. Benjamin Franklin tested the lightning rod, Moscow was besieged by fires, the Liberty Bell arrived in Philadelphia, and the noted pianist and composer Muzio Clementi was born.

Sir Francis Dashwood and poet Paul Whitehead were best friends and the two founding members of the ‘Hell Fire Club’. They were later joined by lords, politicians and prominent men of the era, who wanted society to remain ignorant of their louche undertakings in sleepy West Wycombe.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Among others, some of the most well-known members of the notorious ‘Hell Fire Club’ were: John Montague, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, (and inspiration of the favoured lunchtime food), who was First Lord of the Admiralty, Thomas Potter, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Thomas Thompson, physician to the Prince of Wales, John Norris, MP and Don at Magdalen College, Oxford, John Wilkes, MP and Lord Mayor of London, painter William Hogarth, Sir John Russell, Sir John Aubrey, Sir William Stanhope, MP for Buckinghamshire, Francis Duffield, owner of Medmenham Abbey (where some of the same individuals first met in secret under the name of the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe), and Benjamin Franklin, who was visiting from across the pond, espousing the benefits of the union of England and her American colonies. Little did they know that utopia wasn’t to last…but he nevertheless became very good friends with Sir Francis Dashwood and his powerful and wealthy cohorts.

These were the clandestine ‘rockers’ of their day, pushing the boundaries of decency behind their respectable public personas, privately discarding the religious morals of their time.

Not all the members of the ‘Hell Fire Club’ got on like a house on fire, there was known to be an intense hatred between John Montagu the Earl of Sandwich and MP John Wilkes. A prank that Wilkes was to play on Montagu would ultimately be the undoing of the sordid antics of the ‘Hell Fire Club’, but more on that later…

We stopped again a little further down to learn about the 22 steps, (not a follow-up novel by John Buchan), where it was recently discovered that another passageway had been sealed up when the caves were closed. A specialist team from Oxford had recently confirmed the existence of another tunnel, but due to the way it had been sealed was considered unsafe to reopen at the moment.

22 steps


They suspect it eventually opens out under the floor of St. Lawrence church, where the vicar had the floor pulled up due to warping, to find a bricked layer that concealed a long drop down…

Ghoulish face carving HFCWe came upon numerous macabre faces carved at intervals into the chalk walls, representing the Pope, the Devil, a demon, and other ghoulish beings, the work of artist William Hogarth. They must have known their ‘blasphemy’ would earn them a one-way ticket into Hell itself, and so fashioned their secret club in mock religious terms. The arches down into the caves and throughout are shaped like those in churches. You can tell they were highly contemptuous of the Roman Catholic Church!

Anything but holy devotion was taking place out of the sight of prying eyes. Black magic, satanic rituals, orgies and mass consumption of wine in honour of Bacchus were the order of the day for this group of sexually voracious men and their female companions.

Francis Dashwood was heavily influenced by the monk and writer Francois Rabelais (1494 – 1553), adopting one of his phrases from Gargantua, ‘Do what thou wilt’ as his personal motto. Dashwood travelled extensively and was also interested in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology.

Jack in the Banqueting HallFurther down we entered the massive ‘banqueting hall’ which is around forty feet across and fifty feet high, directly beneath the Mausoleum at the top of West Wycombe Hill. It even had the original 18th Century metal chandelier fitting still attached to the ceiling. According to our guide it once held in place the opulent rose quartz chandelier that Lord Dashwood had hung in the chamber. It is the largest man made chalk cave cavern in the world. Not bad for a cave hewn out of the hillside in 1748.  There are various devotional side ‘chapels’ that would have had beds in them, and there would have been a large dining table in the centre of the cavern.  Entertainment in the form of music and singing was also had in the massive chamber. They probably didn’t feel the cold if they were engaged in suspected hedonistic activities and worse; but we shall never know the true extent of what went on.

Paul Whitehead, who was the club’s steward, burnt all his papers and manuscripts in the three days before his death in 1774, knowing that his accounts of their nefarious deeds would have proved just too shameful for public consumption. Even more macabre, he bequeathed his heart and the sum of £50 for a marble urn to Lord Dashwood, which was duly cut from his corpse and placed in the urn, which was then placed in the mausoleum in an elaborate ceremony lead by Lord Dashwood. It remained there until it was stolen during the Victorian era.

HFC Susanna plaqueThere is a very sad tale relating to the banqueting hall that took place after the caves were no longer in use, again in the Victorian years. A pretty young chamber maid named Susanna who worked at the George and Dragon tavern in West Wycombe was rather popular with the local lads, but she rejected them to become the mistress of Lord Pitt. Sukie, (as she was known), received a love letter from her lord, telling her he wanted to elope with her and marry her, requesting her to meet him at midnight in the banqueting hall of the caves. Dressed in her mother’s bridal gown and holding a candle she followed the voice of the man she thought was her beau. When she reached the chamber it became obvious she had been lured there for other purposes, and several of the previously rebuffed local boys were mocking her. Angry and heartbroken, she hurled stones at her cruel tricksters, but when they threw a rock back it hit her in the head, and she collapsed. The cowardly boys ran, leaving her alone and injured in the dark. When it was discovered that she was missing the next day the boys owned up to their prank, and she was found dead in her blood stained white dress just fifty yards from the entrance.

This tragic story led onto talk of ghosts, hauntings and paranormal activity, and poor dear Sukie is said to be the Lady in White that many have reported seeing throughout the caves. I was not surprised to learn that the caves have been voted by BuzzFeed as the second scariest place in the UK.  Our guide quite openly admitted that the deepest reaches of the cave at 300 feet below ground scared even him. I have to admit, it was very cold and creepy, I’d hate to be alone down there.

An interesting interview about possible hauntings and paranormal activity with the founder’s descendent, Sir Edward Dashwood, about the Hell Fire Caves:

Deeper still, we came to the parting of two tunnels, known as Judgement’s Pass. Our guide put on his deepest, most serious, judgmental voice, wanting to know if we were either sinners or pious people, and to think carefully about our answers, as it would determine whether we took the left or right tunnel. So when he stared at each of us and asked, “Are you good, or are you or bad?” Emily, who had once again been paying close attention to his brilliant commentary, chirped up that she wasn’t sure, “Because I haven’t tidied up my bedroom.” I’m sure they must have heard our shrieks all the way up in the café. As it happens, both tunnels lead to the same chamber, the wine cellar.

River Styx HFCOnly the ‘Twelve Apostles’ were permitted to go beyond this point, across the artificial River Styx and into the ‘Inner Temple’. This is where the tale gets even more bizarre…

It is said that John Wilkes played his prank on the 4th Earl of Sandwich at a gathering of the twelve Apostles. Wilkes pulled out a large mahogany chest, which was accompanied by quite an authentic creaking noise from our guide to demonstrate its opening, whereby out leapt a large baboon dressed as Satan, which promptly took a liking to John Montague. Hysterical, and then angry, as he saw the laughing faces of the other members, he stormed off threatening to spill the beans on their unsavoury subterranean secrets.

The ‘Hell Fire Club’ was duly exposed in humiliating fashion in the House of Lords, as the Earl of Sandwich read out the salacious poem by Thomas Potter and John Wilkes titled ‘Essay on Woman’ to satisfy the prurient curiosity of his fellow Lords in 1764. Potter was imprisoned and Wilkes fled to France.

The American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775 and Benjamin Franklin had returned home, having changed his mind about the colonies, becoming one of the key Founding Fathers of the United States of America.

Eventually the ‘Hell Fire Club’ disbanded, having been publicly routed.  So it seems rather fitting that their beastly activities were ended by a baboon!

Obviously Hell hath no fury like a Lord scorned…

An interesting blog: Secrets of the Hell Fire Club

The Hell Fire Caves were opened to the public as a tourist attraction in 1951.

rsz_west_wycombe_park_from_west_wycombe_hill (2)I can thoroughly recommend them (and indeed the surrounding West Wycombe Park and Mausoleum) if you are ever in the Chiltern Hills and bonny Buckinghamshire, but maybe not on Halloween night!