About this work
It has been argued that Liszt was inspired to write this piece either by the illustrations of Hans Holbein or by a fresco in the cathedral of Pisa entitled "The triumph of Death". In any case, the original piece for piano and orchestra was completed in 1849, and revised at least twice. When he set out to make a solo piano version of the work, he left untouched the solo piano sections, and for the orchestral parts "came out with interesting solutions" as Leslie Howard puts it, in order to produce a similar sense of power without the orchestra. He also made some changes in the harmony and abbreviated the finale. The piece is a set of five variations on the plainchant "Dies Iræ" that had been used by Berlioz in his Symphonie Fantastique and later became a favourite of Rachmaninoff. Its opening, Andante, has the piano playing pounding chords in the lower octaves as a background for the Dies Iræ theme which immediately appears in a low register. Immediately after, a cadenza, Presto, launches the piano in an upward run along the keyboard and down again, three times. Then the theme is accompanied by a tremolo at the top of the keyboard. In the first variation, Allegro moderato the theme appears without much ornamentation. Then, a tune derived from the theme is further elaborated upon. In Variation 2, the tune makes a background for upward and downward glissandi. Variation 3, Molto vivace, has two sections. In the first, the theme is presented with abundance of repeated notes with harmonic support in the foreground. In the second there is a hint at a canon on the theme. Variation 4 (Canonique), begins with a Lento section, an elaborate canon on the theme. A more relaxed Andante is next, with pensive piano arpeggios which then turn to more playful flourishes. In a sudden change of pace, Presto, the piano launches to a Toccata that leads to Variation 5, Vivace, a Fugue on the theme. Then, the intensity mounts leading to a restatement of the main theme ornamented with high tremolos. A cadenza, Presto, allows the piano to indulge in further bravura elaborations of the theme. A new cadenza for the piano where the theme is played by the left hand while the right runs along the keyboard leads to the Presto where the theme returns in the background for the piano glissandi. The finale seems a bit sudden to somebody accustomed to the orchestral version. A very effective piece whose neglect by pianists is most surprising.