Doten dantz mit figuren, the instruments

Der doten dantz: Pope
Figuren, Figuren: Pope
Donaueschingen, Official

One thing that characterizes Der Doten dantz mit Figuren is the very large number of musical instruments that Death handles.

As a comparison, the French Dance Macabre had no music at all (it was only in the second edition that four corpse musicians were added), the dance in Lübeck had a fife at the beginning, and Tallinn has a bagpipe at the start.

In Oberdeutsche vierzeilige Totentanz the musical selection is expanded a little. Death comes »mit seyner pfeyfen geschrey« ("with the screams of his fife") and tells the pope: »merkt off meyner pawken don« ("notice the tone of my kettle drums").

Der Doten Dantz leaves all these dances in the shade: Out of 38 scenes, there are only three where Death is not handling one instrument or another: Trumpet, organ, harp, triangle, bells, etc. This number of different instruments is not just impressive in a dance of death-context: The Doten dantz mit figuren is an important source for knowledge about musical instruments in the late Middle Ages.

Plucked string instruments

Danse Macabre, 1485.
Lute and bow.
Guy Marchant: minstrel
Antoine Verard:
Dropped lute, but flute in hand
Antoine Verard: minstrel

The only musical instrument featured in the first edition of La Danse Macabre is the lute, which had been dropped by the minstrel and was lying on the ground. There is also a bow, which is strange since a lute is not a bowed string instrument. Maybe it's to show the range of the minstrel's musical skills — that he does not only master a single instrument? Many of the later editions also show him with a flute in his hand, but without a bow (pictured right).

In Der Doten Dantz mit Figuren there are several kinds of lutes. Death also arrives to the senator with a kind of three-string guitar, which is actually a diminished lute. The innkeeper listens to a relative of the lute, namely a cittern.

Count Zimmern depicted himself as the count, who is fetched by the lute-playing Death, but in Donaueschingen 123 this scene (with lute) is instead used for the mayor.

In the manuscript in Kassel Death plays the lute for the child, the canon, the innkeeper and the official. In Kienzheim Death brings a lute to the empress: »vnd hat ein lut vor in« ("and has a lute in front of himself").

Der doten dantz: Count
Figuren, Figuren: Count
Der doten dantz: Senator
Three-stringed guitar / lute
Figuren, Figuren: Senator
Der doten dantz: Innkeeper
lute / cittern
Figuren, Figuren: Innkeeper
Der doten dantz: Nun
Figuren, Figuren: Nun
Der doten dantz: Young woman
Figuren, Figuren: Young woman
Zimmern, Count
Zimmern, Zimmern, Count
Zimmern, Innkeeper
Zimmern, Zimmern, Innkeeper
Donaueschingen 123, Mayor
Donaueschingen, Mayor

There is also a lute in the background of Holbein's painting of The Ambassadors.

Der doten dantz: Canon
Figuren, Figuren: Canon
Der doten dantz: Evil monk
Figuren, Figuren: Evil monk

Harps are often associated with something paradisal and angelic, but Death can also make use of harps (pictures left and right).

The harps are used extensively in the manuscript in Kassel: Nun, armour-bearer, young man, lawyer and priest. In Kienzheim it's the count, who is entertained by Death with »ein harpffen in der lincken hand«.

Der doten dantz: Nobleman
Figuren, Figuren: Nobleman
Der doten dantz: Doctor
Psalterium played with a plectrum.
Figuren, Figuren: Doctor

The nobleman and the doctor from Paris are picked up to the streams from a psalterium.

This instrument is related to the dulcimer that accompanies Holbein's old man.

Marine trumpet

The instrument is also called a "nun's trumpet" in German
Figuren, Figuren: Pave
Holbein: Hawker
Holbein Proofs, Peddler

Despite the name, a marine trumpet is a stringed instrument. A marine trumpet (tromba marina, German: Trumscheit) can be up to 2 meters long, and as the picture on the left shows, the musicians usually let the heavy end rest on the ground.

When Death treats the "marine trumpet" it is typically turned upside/down or handled as a sort of baseball club. Often Death hasn't even got a bow.

In the manuscript in Kassel, Death uses a marine trumpet to entertain the doctor, the mayor, the duke and the usurer. The cardinal in Kienzheim is fetched by Death, who »treyt ein trumschyt swyschen den beynen oder füesen«.

Der doten dantz: Cardinal
Figuren, Figuren: Cardinal
Der doten dantz: Craftsman
Small triangular, three-stringed marine trumpet. No bow.
Figuren, Figuren: Craftsman
Der doten dantz: Lawyer
Small square two-strenget marine trumpet with two machine heads. No bow.
Figuren, Figuren: Lawyer
Zimmern: Gambler
Zimmern, Zimmern, Gambler
Donaueschingen 123: Citizen
Donaueschingen, Citizen

Other Bowed String Instruments

Der doten dantz: Official
Figuren, Figuren: Official

The official is picked up by Death with a violin (German: Geige).

The same thing goes for the good monk and the craftsman in the manuscript in Kassel. The Death that comes for the mayor has a trumpet marine on his back, but there is a "geige" lying on the ground.

Death came to the maiden in kienzheim and touched her with the geige by the right breast and invited her to dance with the geige: »ryert die junckfrouw mit der gygen an ann die rechte brust vnd gyget ir zu tantz mit der gygen«.


The start of the dance in Tallinn
Preacher and Pope
The start of the dance in Berlin.
The start of the dance in Berlin

The bagpipe is the only instrument to be seen (and heard) in the dances of death in Tallinn and Berlin. Other dances, however, are better equipped, and we see the bagpipe in Basel's dance of death, la Danse Macabre from 1486 as well as with Hans Holbein's fool. Even a wild boar plays the bagpipe.

Once again, Der Doten Dantz mit Figuren surpasses them all and features several models. There are also two instances of a bladder pipe (German: Platerspiel or Blaterpfeife), which is related to the bagpipe, but more simplified with only a single pipe.

In the manuscript in Kassel Death brings a bagpipe to the senator, the gambler, the bishop and the good monk. The usurer in Kienzheim is carried away to sound of a bagpipe with five reeds: »ein sack pfyff mit fünff rörehn«.

Der doten dantz: Bishop
Figuren, Figuren: Bishop
Der doten dantz: Abbot
Bladder pipe
Figuren, Figuren: Abbot
Der doten dantz: Hermit
Figuren, Figuren: Hermit
Der doten dantz: Mayor
Bladder pipe
Figuren, Figuren: Mayor
Der doten dantz: Citizeness
Figuren, Figuren: Citizeness
Donaueschingen 123: Citizeness
Donaueschingen, Citizeness

Other Wind Instruments

Der doten dantz: Dance house
Figuren, Figuren: Dance-house

The dance opens up in the dance house (to the left) with three shawms of various sizes and a trumpet. Shawms emit a loud sound, but they demand lots of air, which is impractical if you are a corpse without lips and lungs. For this reason shawms are often used as part of bagpipes or bladder pipes.

In the manuscript in Kassel there are shawms for the abbot and the scribe. In Kienzheim there is a shawm (German: Schalmei) for the young man: »hat in der rechten hant ein scharmygen vnd pfifft dem jünglin vff der scharmygen, kört sich mit dem halss vm gegen dem scharmeygen «.

There are a number of trumpets of various shapes. In Kassel there are trumpets for the count, the king, the nobleman, the emperor and the cardinal. In Kienzheim Death came to the emperor with a trumpet with a yellow banner with the eagle painted upon the banner: »Hie kumbt der tod zu dem keyser mit einer trumeten, mit einem gëlen fenlen, mit dem adler am fenlen gemalt«.

Der doten dantz: Pope
Figuren, Figuren: Pope
Der doten dantz: Emperor
Figuren, Figuren: Emperor
Der doten dantz: Usurer
Figuren, Figuren: Usurer
Der doten dantz: Scribe
Figuren, Figuren: Scribe
Der doten dantz: Merchant
Figuren, Figuren: Merchant

There are many different horns: In Kassel there is a horn for the merchant. There were also a number of them in Kienzheim. One was for the abbot: »vnd ein horn in beyden henden vnd blosst es vber sich«.

Der doten dantz: Duke
Figuren, Figuren: Duke
Der doten dantz: Knight
Death has the horn in the belt
Figuren, Figuren: Knight
Der doten dantz: Robber
Figuren, Figuren: Robber
Der doten dantz: Gambler
Figuren, Figuren: Gambler
Der doten dantz: Thief
Figuren, Figuren: Thief
Der doten dantz: All ranks
Figuren, Figuren: All ranks

Portative organ

Der doten dantz: Priest
Figuren, Figuren: Priest
Kassel: Pope
Figuren, Kassel: Pope

A portative was a small transportable pipe organ.

The portative was also played by one of the four corpse musicians from Marchant's extended edition of La Danse macabre.

In Kienzheim, Death fetches the bishop with an organ between the knees and feet: »hat ein orgel zwyschen den knugen vnd den füessen«.

Sundry instruments

Der doten dantz: Chaplain
Figuren, Figuren: Chaplain
Der doten dantz: Physician
Figuren, Figuren: Physician

The Death that picks up the chaplain has a fool's cap with a bell. He has a triangle with jingle-rings in his hand.

Death comes to the physician with castanets. Three shells with handles, each connected to a bell.

Der doten dantz: King
Figuren, Figuren: King
Der doten dantz: Good monk
Figuren, Figuren: Good monk

There is warlike music for the king: A "schwegel", also known as three-hole pipe or tabor pipe, designed to be played by one hand, and a drum.

The good monk is lead away to a small "tabor pipe" and a tambourine. We see the same combination with the fourth musician in la Danse Macabre from 1486.

Der doten dantz: Young man
Ukendt instrument
Figuren, Figuren: Young man
Kassel: robber
Death plays the spade
Figuren, Kassel: Robber

The young man seems to be puzzled by the unknown instrument: A round, pumpkin-like ball from which two crescent arms are protruding.

Each string can be tuned with a machine head, but the strings cannot be shortened while playing so the tone cannot be altered.

However, the most original instrument is to be found in the manuscript in Kassel: Both the citizen and the robber are being treated to a trumpet-solo on spade.

External links

In order to identify the instruments there are four sources:

Further Information