He began composing early on and was a member of the German New School that included Richard Wagner. Indeed, Wagner became his son in law when Wagner married Liszt's daughter Cosima.
Liszt was the originator of the tone poem, or symphonic poem, a piece of music inspired by something non-musical such as a person, time in history or a place. Totentanz is a symphonic poem written for orchestra and solo piano. In the Romantic Age in which Liszt lived, there was a fascination with all things medieval. One of these interests were the illustrations made at the time of the Black Death (bubonic plague) in Europe. These gruesome pictures depicted death bringing the demise of people and celebrating by dancing. These pictures were called Memento Mori (Latin for 'Remember you will die') or The Dance Of Death. The composition was also inspired by a fresco seen by Liszt in Pisa, Italy in 1838.
Totentanz is a set of variations for piano and orchestra on the Gregorian Chant melody Dies Irae (Day Of Judgement). This is the same melody used in Rachmaninoff's Isle Of The Dead. Rachmaninoff also used it in two other compositions, the Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances. Berlioz also used this melody in his Symphony Fantastique, which Liszt heard at its premiere.
Totentanz opens with bass-heavy chords in the piano while the orchestra blares out the Dies Irae tune. The piano writing is very modern sounding even today with its percussive quality and dissonance. After the variations have run their course, the orchestra and piano collapse upon themselves in a final downward swirl of music that hits bottom, thuds, and ends.