Franz Liszt: Totentanz


Completed in 1849, Totentanz (‘Dance of the Dead’) is a fiery work for solo piano and orchestra by Hungarian composer, Franz Liszt. The work is primarily based on the Dies irae melody, which Liszt takes and develops into a powerful set of variations. Liszt was known for being strangely obsessed by death, with him visiting hospitals, asylums and prisons to see those condemned to die. This fascination is reflected in a number of his works such as La lugubre gondola and Totentanz. 


The Music

Opening with dissonant, percussive chords from the piano, the lower brass enter with the original Dies irae theme. The foreboding aspect of this opening has become iconic within Romantic repertoire, with Béla Bartók using a very similar formula for the start of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, written some 100 years later. The harshness from the piano mixed with the steady trombones and tuba makes for a really exciting introduction to Liszt’s Dance of Death. Stabs from the orchestra set off flourishing runs from the piano, as well as Liszt exploring the very bottom end of the instrument. 

Totentanz is often commended and admired for its very modernistic style, which was well ahead of its time. Liszt’s quick changes from more Medieval-sounding passages that explore counterpoint and the theme, to the highly dissonant and dramatic full-scale sequences, makes the work rich in content for the listener. Liszt utilises every instrument in the orchestra to their full potential, with the brass being used to show the diabolical side of the theme of death and the shrill woodwind following suit. The big orchestral swells that lead into short piano interludes lets us see the many sides to Liszt’s creativity. The soft lyrical central section opposes the harsh toccata and full orchestra blasts. Totentanz’s variation structure has been described as “disclosing some new character – the earnest man, the flighty youth, the scornful doubter, the prayerful monk, the daring soldier, the tender man, the playful child.”

The last couple of minutes of Totentanz begins to tie loose ends up and brings the orchestra back together. The bold piano interludes resemble a collection of the variations, which also begin to speed up. Totentanz comes to its epic conclusion with another lower brass and horn call of the Dies irae theme, before the piece finishes with orchestral tutti chords. 


Final Thoughts

The dark temperament of Franz Liszt’s Totentanz is what makes it stand out for many of his other orchestra works. Liszt’s handling of the Dies irae theme as part of a set of opposing variations mixes the old and new styles of classical music. The iconic dissonant and aggressive opening remains one of Liszt’s namesakes. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns 

Happy Reading!

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