Totentanz

Franz Liszt travelled to Pisa in 1938 with Marie d’Agoult, where they visited the city’s famous graveyard, Campo Santo. This is protected by a Gothic cloister opening inwards, on the outer wall of which there is not a single window. The immense, continuous wall surface invited the painting of grand frescos. The work on the cloister, which was begun by pupils of Giotto, lasted for more than a century. One of the most remarkable and exciting frescos is The Triumph of Death (Trionfo della morte), which Francesco Traini painted around 1350. In Liszt’s time, it was attributed to Orgagna and later, variously to Lorenzetti and Bonamico Buffalmacco. On one side of the picture, we see elegant ladies in the company of handsome knights. They are listening to music, while on the knights’ arms repose hunting falcons.

One of the ladies can be seen playing with a dog. On the other side of the picture, a similarly well to do group are riding through a forest, but suddenly, they encounter three coffins in their path. In them are putrefying corpses which remind them of the triumph of death. The knights recoil with horror as they stand astride the border land of the kingdom of the death. The dogs restlessly paw the air. A dumb loathing prevails across the whole scene, and fear becomes visible in terms of the shivering horror of the company. In 1838 Liszt’s imagination was fired by this exceptionally expressive and horrific fresco and he immediately linked it to the Gregorian Dies Irae melody. The basic compositional idea – working the melody in variation form within a piano concerto format – was born then, but a considerable length of time was to elapse before it was completed. As so often with Liszt, he wrote a number of versions. Its world premiere finally took placed a mere thirty five years after the event that inspired it, in 1865. On that occasion, the piano solo was played by Hans von Bülow.