Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs: “Totentanz” — Franz Liszt (1849)

blgtotenhanzAs much as I have grown to really appreciate what’s known as ‘classical music’ throughout my lifetime, I think probably retained the greatest affinity for the composers of the Romantic Era, a period which occurred during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Not that I want to get too deep into pseudo-intellectualism in a blog series with the word Buttkickin’ in the title, but the Romantic Era of art, music, and literature highly favored expressionism and extreme emotional content, what was known to the Germans as Sturm und Drang, or “Storm and Drive”.

Themes of fear, terror, apprehension, power, folklore, nationalism, and death came to the forefront. The seemingly structured and aristocratic forms of the Baroque and Classical periods, while still highly revered and deeply influential, gave way into a deeper sense of auteurism and expressionism. Ludwig van Beethoven was at the forefront in the transition from Classical to Romantic — the brutal assault of his Fifth Symphony struck audiences like some massive cultural typhoon — and over the next several decades composers were falling all over themselves to express their basest emotional content in composition.

One of the most chilling and stunning examples of this is Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, or “Dance of the Dead”. A dark, haunting, macabre piece, Totentanz emerged from the shadowy depths of Liszt’s innate fear of Death. Liszt was a piano virtuoso, and the percussive keyboard lines come across like a terrified human wail against the orchestral certainty of mortality. The central motivic theme is based on a plainchant entitled Dies irae, and it lends an air of timeless certainty to the piece’s foundation while the emotional musical content flails around it, as if reminding us that the Grim Reaper never stagnates in his eternal certainty no matter how strong our struggle, no matter how terrified our cries…

Plus, let’s be really real: it sounds spooky as hell. Close the windows, kill the lights save for a single candle, put on Totentanz, and drink deep from our shared well of collective mortal terror.

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