About this work
As many may already know, Liszt's output was enormous, his list of works taking up page after page in reference catalogs. Yet, its size is not quite as it appears, for the composer wrote many versions of the same piece. One such example is Totentanz (Dance of death), which exists in two versions for piano and orchestra and one for solo piano. The two orchestral renditions are similar, but have very clear differences, too, with the latter version being the better known by far. It opens with crashing dark chords on the piano, over which the orchestra plays the Dies Irae theme (Andante), the ancient melody used in the Roman Catholic requiem mass. After some thrilling pyrotechnics on the piano and further renditions of the theme, there follow six variations, the first three of which are short, lasting less than a minute each. The final three are all substantial, each with a duration of more than three minutes. The fifth (Vivace), featuring a brilliant fugato and cadenza, may be the finest for sheer drama, though the mostly Lento-paced fourth is mesmeric in its mixture of innocence and dark mysticism. Of course, Liszt supplies a spectacular close to the work which, despite a measure of bombast, is a more dramatic and effective denouement than heard in any of his concertos or other piano/orchestral works.
The first version of Totentanz, nicknamed "De Profundis," is usually heard in the Busoni edition from 1919, which may contain revisions from 1853. It opens softly and darkly, with the piano silent, the gong ominously rumbling with restraint. The first three variations appear almost the same way here, but then the order of the variants changes, and Liszt adds a seventh. Moreover, music from the fourth variation in the later version does not appear here, but Liszt presents a lengthy slow section after all variations are heard with the "De Profundis" theme. Here, he also introduces thematic ideas that would appear in Thoughts on Death from his piano collection Harmonies Religious and Poetic. The ending to the early version differs greatly from the later Totentanz, too, not least in its brass-dominated bombast. In the end, both versions are convincing, but the latter rendition is clearly superior both for its more convincing structural properties and better writing.