The idea for Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, Paraphrase on “Dies Irae” was conceived in 1838, when the composer saw Francesco Traini’s Il Trionfo della Morte (Triumph of Death), a fresco in the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa. Traini portrays death as an ineluctable, terrifying force, affecting people from all ranks and statuses of society. Amidst the chaos of this painting, corpses of the clergy and royalty are seen heaped along with the poor. To the right of the bodies, young and affluent women sit and entertain themselves carelessly, yet the personification of Death (a woman with long hair and blade) soars above them ominously. To the left, noblemen on horses observe three open coffins with disgust, pointing and covering their faces from the smell of the bodies. Angels and demons sweep through the air in an ultimate battle for salvation. Traini conveys the sheer force of death as something that invariably affects all human beings; it is also a didactic work, reaffirming a belief in Christianity and redemption.
Liszt was compelled to compose a piece based on the “Dies Irae” chant - a hymn from the 13th century describing Judgment Day. Liszt was perhaps influenced by Berlioz’s formidable Symphonie Fantastique, which quotes the chant in the “Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath” movement. After a protracted period of orchestration and revisions, the piece was published in 1865, almost thirty years after Liszt’s exposure to Traini’s painting.
Totentanz - a theme and variations depicting fantastical scenes of people dancing to their graves - evokes the terror of Traini’s painting with explicit imagery and rhetoric of different characters. The theme opens dramatically with brusque and percussive interplay between trombone/tuba and piano, followed by more typical Lisztian, virtuoso figurations in the piano. Nonetheless, the piano part is extremely chromatic and cacophonic; the piano plays a tremolando when the orchestra repeats the Dies Irae, conveying an atmosphere of...