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In 1847, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) retired from his career as a professional pianist. He had been playing for 27 years all over Europe, from Dublin to Constantinople and in just about every city in between. During his years as a touring virtuoso, Liszt steadily churned out a number of works meant to delight the public and display his own towering skills. It was by transcribing, arranging, and writing sets of variations on other composers’ works (including arrangements of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, French composer Hector Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony, as well as opera arias and folk songs) that the pianist became acquainted with virtually every musical style in existence.

After his retirement, Liszt reaped the rewards of this musical education of sorts. With a more settled existence that allowed him to focus on composing and on making the German city of Weimar, where he was music director, into the center of progressive musical Europe, Liszt produced a steady stream of masterworks, beginning in the late 1840s. Among these was the first of his two Piano Concertos and the Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra.

Both works were conceived during the virtuoso years. Liszt completed the First Piano Concerto in Weimar in 1849, orchestrated it in collaboration with his assistant, and revised it in 1853. The composer premiered the work in Weimar on February 17, 1855, with Berlioz conducting. (The two had met in Paris during the heady days following the July Revolution of 1830, and they remained life-long friends.)

The Concerto’s form is exceedingly novel. It is basically in one movement, with various themes recalled and transformed over the course of the work. While Liszt does divide the Concerto into an opening fast section, a slow section, a scherzo, and a finale, roughly mirroring a symphony, there is nothing traditional about the work as a whole. The orchestra and soloist do not alternate the way they do in any number of late 18th or early 19th-century concertos, and the orchestra does not have long, uninterrupted passages to itself. Instead, Liszt integrates the piano and orchestra, often using other instruments (flute, clarinet, and viola especially) soloistically.

The Concerto’s four sections are connected and share thematic material to such an extent that they form an organic, cyclic whole. The opening Allegro maestoso’s imposing initial theme and the soloist’s response both return during the transition from scherzo to finale and during the finale itself. The melody that opens the Quasi adagio is transformed into a march for the finale, and the sylvan, skittish beginning of the scherzo (when Liszt – or his collaborator – had the inspired idea of calling on the triangle to give the accompaniment a bit of extra sparkle) also returns during the work’s closing pages. There are also passing moments when Liszt’s diverse ingredients become apparent – the closing of the Allegro maestoso, for example, where orchestral passages akin to early 19th-century Italian opera with the melody elaborated over a rhythmic accompaniment alternate with impetuously Romantic piano writing.

Where Liszt charms and delights in the E-flat-major Concerto, he unleashes the piano and orchestra with apocalyptic force in the Totentanz. Like the First Concerto, the Totentanz was composed beginning in the late 1830s. It was completed a decade later and revised 1853 and 1859. Liszt’s son-in-law, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, was the soloist at the work’s premiere in The Hague on April 15, 1865.

There are two conflicting stories about the work’s program. Liszt’s biographer, Lina Ramann, claims that the work was inspired by The Triumph of Death, a fresco Liszt saw in the Campo Santo during a visit to Pisa. It seems, however, that the inspiration for the Totentanz may have been a series of Holbein woodcuts depicting the dance of death. At least this is what several early commentators on the piece – some of them close to Liszt – believed.

The idea of the Totentanz – the danse macabre, the dance of death – had first gripped the European imagination during the Middle Ages. The dance of death whirled everyone away, regardless of status. The voluptuous beauty, the withered old crone, the wealthy merchant, and the poor beggar – all eventually died. In the words of the remarkable Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, “There entered into the realm surrounding the idea of death a new, grippingly fantastic element, a shiver that arose from the gruesomely conscious realm of ghostly fear and cold terror.”

Ghostly fear and cold terror mark Liszt’s Totentanz from the outset. The work is a set of six variations on the “Dies irae,” a medieval plainchant associated with the Mass for the Dead. Liszt gives a cold, hard edge to the virtuosic keyboard writing. The music evokes the denuded skeletons of Holbein’s woodcuts spinning with abandon, their deathly revels driven by Liszt’s hedonistic essay in the macabre.

John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Opera, and Hong Kong Arts Festival.