Dance of the Dead

During the liturgical year, November is the month dedicated to the Holy Souls in Purgatory. In the place where I am living at this moment, November is the month where fog rises from the river, and spreads out over the whole valley, sometimes it stays the whole day long and brings you into a melancholic depressing mood. This kind of weather is appropriate for contemplating the Death, the End of our journey on Earth. After we reproduced Mrsg. Pope’s excellent explanation to the Requiem sequence Dies Irae, I would like to direct your attention to a music composition by Ferenc Liszt, his symphonic composition for piano and orchestra, the same named piece Dies Irae (1838-1849), which is based on the former.

The Last Judgement, from Très Riches Heures

I am not familiar with music theory, so I shall simply quote the Wikipedia article to give you some overall information on this piece:

Some of the titles of Liszt’s pieces, such as Totentanz, Funérailles, La lugubre gondola, Pensée des morts, etc., show the composer’s fascination with death. In the young Liszt we can already observe manifestations of his obsession with death, with religion, and with heaven and hell. According to Alan Walker,[1] Liszt frequented Parisian “hospitals, gambling casinos and asylums” in the early 1830s, and he even went down into prison dungeons in order to see those condemned to die.

[…]

In the Romantic age, due to a fascination with everything Medieval, the aspect of fantastic or grotesquely macabre irony often replaced the original moral intent. A musical example of such irony can be found in the last movement of the Symphonie fantastique by Hector Berlioz which quotes the medieval (Gregorian) Dies Irae (Day of Judgment) melody in a shockingly modernistic manner. In 1830 Liszt attended the first performance of the symphony and was struck by its powerful originality. Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death), a set of variations for piano and orchestra, also paraphrases the Dies Irae plainsong.

Another source of inspiration for the young Liszt was the famous fresco “Triumph of Death” by Francesco Traini (click here to see the image) (at Liszt’s time attributed to Andrea Orcagna and today also to Buonamico Buffalmacco) in the Campo Santo, Pisa. Liszt had eloped to Italy with his mistress, the Countess d’Agoult, and in 1838 he visited Pisa. Only ten years later, Liszt’s first sketches materialized into a complete version of his Totentanz. Revisions followed in 1853 and 1859, and its final form was first performed at The Hague on 15 April 1865 by Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow, to whom the work is dedicated.

Liszt’s Totentanz contains Medieval sounding passages with canonic counterpoint, but by far the most innovative aspect of the scoring is the shockingly modernistic, even percussive, nature of the piano part. The opening comes surprisingly close to the introduction in Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work composed almost a hundred years later. This may be no coincidence since Bartók frequently performed Liszt’s Totentanz. Other modernistic features are the toccata like sections where the pianist’s repeated notes bleat with diabolic intensity and special sound effects in the orchestra—for example, the col legno in the strings sound like shuddering or clanking bones. Richard Pohl (an early biographer) notes, “Every variation discloses some new character—the earnest man, the flighty youth, the scornful doubter, the prayerful monk, the daring soldier, the tender maiden, the playful child.

Here is a performance I found on youtube:

Part I:

Part II

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