The Danse Macabre, also known as the Dance of Death, Danza Mababra, danza della morte, or Totentanz (depending on you nationality), originated during the years of the bubonic plague (a.k.a. the black death) in the 14th century, and was intended to remind one that death would soon be coming for us, be we king, pope or commoner. The theme was explored in forms as diverse as poetry, visual arts (see above) and music. One of my favorite examples of the genre is a musical composition by Camille Saint-Saëns, entitled Danse Macabre, first performed in 1875.
Wikipedia has a wonderful entry on the piece; following are some of the highlights:
The composition is based upon a poem by Henri Cazalis, which itself is based upon an old French superstition:
Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack—
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; their cocks have crowed.
According to the ancient superstition, "Death" appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death has the power to call forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle (represented by a solo violin with its E-string tuned to an E-flat in an example of scordatura tuning). His skeletons dance for him until the first break of dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.
The piece opens with a harp playing a single note,and soft chords from the string section. This then leads to the eerie E flat and A chords (also known as a tritone or the "Devil's chord") played by a solo violin, representing death on his fiddle... The final section, a pianissimo, represents the dawn breaking and the skeletons returning to their graves.
Listen to (or download) a wonderful version from 1925, conducted by Leopold Stokowski here. The lavishly illustrated and lovingly compiled website Danza Macabre might make a nice companion piece.