Liszt: Totentanz

played by Nelson Friere and the Munich Philharmonic under Rudolph Kempe
Music You Can Understand: Part 2
This is intense. Also, two videos this week. Watch the top one first (at least the first minute or so), then the second one. It’s required reading for much of classical music: Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Berlioz…
It’s also our first ever piece by famously talented (such an understatement) composer and performer, technical genius, and all around super nice guy Franz Liszt. Reading about things like transcribing Beethoven’s symphonies for solo piano to raise money for a monument to be built in the latter’s name, doing the same for Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique to bring some more recognition to his friend the composer, all make this guy seem super likable. He is only a year younger than Chopin, and born the same year as Schumann. They were Romantic contemporaries for sure.
While Liszt embodies the emotion and talent that swept through the musical community in the nineteenth century, he himself was also unique. A stunning technical talent, his style in was also distinct from people like Chopin. When Totentanz first premiered in 1849, it was shockingly different from what anyone had heard before for a number of reasons.
There’s Liszt’s fascination with death. He actually was hugely impressed by the aforementioned Berlioz in the aforementioned Symphonie Fantastique, which also uses the Dies Irae Gregorian plainchant upon which Liszt based this piece. He was also reported to have visited hospitals

, asylums, and even prisons to visit those on death row in the 1830s. While the Romantic era may have had a fascination with all things Medieval, there was still something particularly grotesque about this piece in its maintaining the chant-style nature, as well as in the piano technique itself, noticeably more percussive (read jarring, violent, or bombastic) than anything which preceded it. (To this, it is said that Liszt’s performance style itself was a tour de force. He apparently claimed once that only two piano makers, Bösendorfer and Bechstein, could stand up to his intense playing; strings on other pianos would break or tune down during his performances.)

Other things like the ‘toccata’ section of the piece after the quiet solo passage is full of repeated notes, some passages almost seeming to resemble Balakirev’s Islamey (or the other way around), as well as another kind of extra-musical thing that I love that almost always gives me chills (well, maybe just in Mahler’s second), col legno in the strings, that haunting clicking or tapping sound, which here is said to resemble the sounds of shuddering or clanking bones.
While the piece feels and sounds like a concerto (piano and orchestra), it is a set of variations based on the plainchant. At only 13 or 14 minutes (for a faster recording like Friere’s), it is far shorter than most any concerto, but still retains the quite nice fast-slow-fast progression that a concert would.
Liszt’s student Hans von Bülow performed the premiere of the final version (after a series of revisions, evidently typical of Liszt) at the Hague on April 16, 1865.
The opening is ominous, evil, growling, and virtuosic on the piano. Did I mention this music is grotesque?
It’s piano and brass to start, then chromatic fancy stuff up and down the piano. It’s violent and magically evil from the get go.
The piece is made up of a few sections, all related to the Dies Irae. It’s gripping from the beginning, and gives me chills. It quiets down after this dramatic beginning, and the piano plays a beautifully lyrical passage, still very clearly related to the theme. Bassoon and strings enter, and it develops a heartbeat, a pulse that is more energetic than a funeral march but still less than lively. Liszt’s use of horns is fantastic in this piece. The momentum continues with the theme now in low brass with piano glissandos up and down the keyboard. It feels like a storm is brewing.
Piano enters low, with a punctuated repeated note variation on the theme, strings in the background. This section is thrilling in its build of tension. It’s dark, but also almost pleading, yearning even.
We enter a long solo piano passage, a gorgeous one. It sounds like mourning more than anger. It is solemn and profound, and very Gregorian in its harmonies. It sounds like far off tolling bells.
There’s a brighter, almost happier passage, one almost of hope. The bells begin to sound like chimes, and then a clarinet enters, and we know the scene is changing once again.
We’re almost halfway through the piece at this point, and the clarinet leads to a thundering crash at the piano. It’s a toccata-like section, heavy on repeated notes, perhaps one of the most energetic of the piece, fluttering in both hands.
Strings and flutes join the party, and it sounds slightly more playful.
It sounds like in the next solo passage of the piano, only a few bars, that we get something almost resembling a major key, which sounds oddly out of place.
There’s almost a celebratory section led by strings and accented by piano, before we go back to a minor key.
We return to the same feeling of the opening of the piece, but with more energy. That section toward the end (about ten minutes into my recording) is what sounds toe very much like Islamey, also somewhat happy. Horn calls seem to announce a critical part in this piece, and it sounds almost heroic.
The next few variations lead us to think this might end well. There’s flitty, happier stuff before the piano goes back to a lower register and we hear the col legno clicking in the background.
One of the most chilling passages is at the very end, after another crazy cadenza like solo from the piano. Things sound like they’re looking up again, before the orchestra darts back in against more glissando from the piano. It sounds like it builds in waves, climaxing in the last full-orchestra presence of the full Dies Irae theme in the piece before it finishes out.


That was a less-than-satisfying description of this amazing piece, but Liszt biographer Richard Pohl sums it up best when he says: “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. This piece as a miniature concerto contains many exciting and moving variations rather than three separate movements, but comprises such a wide scope of emotion that, by the time it’s done, it’s hard to believe it all fits into only a 14-minute piece. Each section is also perfectly contrasted but leads into the next with such logic. I spent most of this post in a sort of half-hearted attempt to explain what’s going on in this gnarly, grotesque, skin-crawling piece, but I feel if you give both the above videos a listen, you will know what Liszt means without having to read anyone’s explanations.

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