Thursday, April 16, 2020

Liszt - Totentanz (Dance Of Death)

 Franz Liszt began planning the work as early as 1838 after he saw The Triumph Of Death fresco by Francesco Traini in the Campo Santo in Pisa, Italy. But until he dedicated himself to composing over traveling Europe as the most famous virtuoso of his day, the first version was not completed until 1853.  Liszt revisited the work in 1859 and completed the 2nd version, the version most often heard, in 1864.

The Romantic era in general had a certain amount of interest in the subject of death, but Liszt took it even farther. He composed a number of pieces that dwelled on the subject to the point of morbidity.

Totendanz is a set of variations (or as Liszt put it, a paraphrase) on the Gregorian chant Dies Irae, or day of wrath, words that were taken from the Bible that depicted the day of final judgement. The original Latin text and music for Dies Irae date back to the 13th century. The chant is most frequently heard in the Catholic Requiem Mass, and Liszt is just one of many composers that used the melody in their compositions.
The Triumph Of Death fresco by Francesco Traini

Opening theme ‘Dies irae - The music begins with the soloist playing deep in the bass of the piano in marked tone clusters while the orchestra plays the theme.  The piano then plays the first of three cadenzas that span the compass of the keyboard with the orchestra contributes short chords after each. The orchestra then takes up the theme while the piano hammers out chords in the treble range of the piano in rapid tempo that makes it sound like a huge 8-note tremolo. A climax is reached and the music grows quiet. The piano has a solo that leads to -

Variation I (Allegro moderato) - The bassoon and violas play a variant of the melody, and the piano repeats it. Clarinets and bassoon play the second part of the melody and the piano repeats it, and leads to -

Variation II - The left hand of the piano plays a variant of the theme low in the bass as the right hand plays runs higher in the bass. A horn and pizzicato strings add to the texture.  The next part of the variation has piano glissandos in the right hand, the bass plays a dotted rhythm while trumpets and low strings are added. The drama increases as the piano plays glissandos in both hands as the woodwinds and strings lend accompaniment. This leads to -

Variation III (Molto vivace) - The soloist goes back to the deep bass for an agitated section that eventually climbs into the high treble. A full stop comes upon a D minor chord that leads to -

Variation IV (Lento) - For piano solo, this gentle canon gives some rest after the preceding drama. After it has played out, a cadenza in B major (the only section of any length in a major key in the piece) gives repose. The music then goes back to the minor with a solo clarinet playing a simple variant of the melody with a light piano accompaniment.  Another section of transformation begins abruptly with the piano increasing the tempo to presto, with octaves in each hand leading to -

Variation V (Vivace) - The first part of the theme is rendered contrapuntally by solo piano in a fugue with repeated notes. The orchestra joins the soloist and the music goes somewhat a field to different keys. There is a section of the piano part that has the directive strepitoso, meaning clamorous, impetuous. The section ends in a long cadenza for the soloist and leads to -

Variation VI (Semper allegro (ma non troppo)) - This is a mini-set of variations itself.
1.            The horns play a figure in triplets while the orchestra, minus the other brass, accompany.
2.            The piano enters and plays a variant with pizzicato low strings, flute and triangle.  
3.            Oboes, piano, strings, and the triangle play a variant.
4.            The piano imitates hands as the woodwinds and strings fill out the harmonies.
5.            The figure is played in the bass of the piano with chords in the right hand. Woodwinds fill in harmonies while the strings play col legno.
6.            The piano plays a variant that is marked piacevole that is punctuated by chromatic runs played by both hands a third apart that venture high into the treble.
7.            The piano accompanies with chords and octave runs while the orchestra plays another variant.

This mini-set of variants ends when there is another cadenza that has the Dies Irate played low in the bass while a tremendous minor scale is played that covers the rest of the keyboard.  The glissandos appear again, as the music leads up to a raucous closing. There is no written part for the piano in the score, but it is not out of place for a soloist to play along with the orchestra. There is a tradition for the soloist to play in contrary motion to the orchestra with the final chromatic run and final chords.

The modern way in which Liszt treated the piano in the middle of the 19th century was ahead of its time. His percussive treatment of the instrument was a big influence on a 20th century fellow Hungarian composer, Bela Bartok.

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