Dies Irae and the Totentanz

“I shall speak of a subject which strikes dread—even terror—into the hearts of most men. It is something we fear, of which we are sorely afraid, and from which most of us would flee if we could.

“I shall speak of the passing of the immortal soul into the eternal realms ahead, of that dread day when we shall shuffle off this mortal coil and go back to the dust from whence we came. I shall speak of death—mortal death, the natural death, the death of the body—and of the state of the souls of men when this final consummation is imposed upon them….

“Death can be comforting and sweet and precious or it can thrust upon us all the agonies and sulphurous burnings of an endless hell. And we—each of us individually—make the choice as to which it shall be.” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “The Dead Who Die in the Lord,” Conference Report, Oct 1976. http://www.lds.org/ensign/1976/11/the-dead-who-die-in-the-lord?lang=eng&query=death.)

Death is something that grabs our attention. It strikes fear into the hearts of many because it is a journey into the unknown and a sudden judgment day. “To the well-prepared mind, death is but the next great adventure” (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 297), yet we all face it someday, prepared or not—it’s a fact of life, along with birth and taxes.

Perhaps due to the universal nature of death, it has a life of its own in folklore. Death has made his appearance as the Grim Reaper—the harvester of souls and the great equalizer. All must face him some day—whether in a grateful embrace, fearfully fleeing, or an unexpected stroke. Many have sought for escape in immortality, but God alone can grant that. Thus, all are exposed to Death’s grasp at any given time.

Death has taken a life of its own in folklore

One folkloric motif that has found its way into European culture is referred to as the dance of death—the dance macabre or the Totentanz. “This medieval movement was widely based in Europe during the Middle Ages; although most prevalent in France and Germany, examples also occurred in Italy and Spain. In its simplest form, the Totentanz was really a dance, albeit one depicted in frescos and woodcuts. The central idea was that death visits us all eventually, regardless of social station or age…. The Totentanz served as a type of secular yet religiously based motif centered on the uncertainty of life in the Middle Ages. Death was ever-present during these times of plague and war, so communities in the Middle Ages could not afford to shy away from it. Instead, a vital art form was created out of the somehow satisfying idea that death comes to all, regardless of earthly advantages.” (Inquiry: The University of Arkansas Undergraduate Research Journal, Volume 4, 2003, p. 11.)

Interestingly enough, during the Romantic Era, this “dance of death” found itself using the Dies Irae Gregorian chant as its musical representation. The Dies Irae was discussed last post (https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/dies-irae/). It’s haunting and memorable melody and textual representation of the hellfire and destruction of the Judgment Day was thought to match with the instantaneous judgment of death and the infernal dance with death.

The Dies Irae Chant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsn9LWh230k

A depiction of Berlioz’s witches’ sabbath.

The first such use of note was in Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique, premiered December 1830. The full piece is a musical representation of a story (program music) of “an artist gifted with a lively imagination” who has “poisoned himself with opium” in the “depths of despair” because of “hopeless love.” (Translation of the composer’s programme notes, http://www.hberlioz.com/Scores/fantas.htm.) The final movement is entitled the “Dream of a witches’ Sabbath.” In this movement, the author (who was executed in the previous movement) “sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance-tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roars of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy [cultic gathering]… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae. The dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies Irae” (ibid). Berlioz used this tune at the funeral/witches Sabbath to invoke a dark mood and “was undoubtedly meant as a sort of parody in view of the program assigned to the symphony…. The  Symphony Fantastique … creates an ingenious mixtures of perceptions, as it fuses the fragment of the Dies Irae with a wild witches’ round dance—perhaps an indication of the universality of ‘dance’ as a part of death.” (Inquiry, 12.)

In the music itself, the Dies Irae is found after the ringing of bells, stated by bassoons and ophecleides, and is even noted in the score. It is repeated again, hurriedly, by the horns and trombones and then plucked 2 octaves higher by violins and woodwinds, with an altered rhythm. This whole section is repeated twice, then “a round of witches dancing follows which is then treated to a fugal development, where a few hints of Dies Irae are thrown in. At the climax of the piece the two themes are combined in a section of the score subtitled ‘Dies Irae et Ronde du Sabbat ensemble’, with the witches’ dance played by the strings and the Dies Irae played by everyone else.” (Rachmaninoff and Dies Irae, Vincent Pallaver, February 2004.)

Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath (see 3:30-5:10, 8:43-9:10): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5n7qfRNzS3s

Hector Berlioz was the first composer to reference the Dies Irae chant in a Romantic symphonic poem.

This piece would set the tone and shape of future use of the Dies Irae. It is possible that Goeth’s Faust may have inspired Berlioz’s use of this funeral tune, since he discovered it two years before the Symphonie was premiered and there is a scene where the chant is sung accompanied by an organ in a cathedral prior to Gretchen’s decapitation. Whatever the case is there, it seems that Berlioz’s use of the tune inspired what future artists would do with it.

“Triumph of Death”, Francesco Traini, c. 1355.

Berlioz’s friend, Franz Liszt was the next notable composer to utilize the chant. Begun in 1839 and completed in 1849, Totentanz: Paraphrase on Dies Irae S. 126 is a massive symphonic piece for solo piano and orchestra that serves as a theme and variations on the Dies Irae plainchant. It seems that Berlioz’s use of the chant sparked Liszt’s imagination, for “Liszt was in attendance at the Symphonie fantastique’s premiere in Paris and gave it rave reviews, declaring it the work of genius. He admired the work so much he wrote a well-known piano transcription of the piece in 1834, four years after its premiere…. When combined with his religious beliefs and knowledge of the Catholic liturgy (he had a devout Catholic upbringing and late in life would take minor religious orders, becoming the “Abbé Liszt”), the theme must have had a deep personal impact.” (Rachmaninoff and Dies Irae, Vincent Pallaver, February 2004, 7.) In addition, Liszt had some sort of obsession with death. According to Alan Walker, Liszt frequented Parisian “hospitals, gambling casinos and asylums” in the early 1830s, and he even went down into prison dungeons in order to see those condemned to die. (Walker, Allen; Franz Liszt: The Virtuoso Years 1811-1847. Faber and Faber. p. 152.) Religious paintings, such as the fourteenth century fresco “The Triumph of Death” and the Holbein “Todtentanz” woodcuts served as additional inspiration for the piece.

Examples of the Holbein woodcuts

As the name would imply, Liszt’s take on the Dies Irae brought out the theme of the Totentanz or dance of death. The Holbrein woodcuts depict Death visiting people of all sorts—the rich, the poor, male and female, learned and otherwise, king and peddler—all are visited by death some day (see http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Danse_Macabre_(Holbein)) . Liszt’s variations effectively demonstrate this idea, as noted by a biographer: “Every variation discloses some new character—the earnest man, the flighty youth, the scornful doubter, the prayerful monk, the daring soldier, the tender maiden, the playful child.” (Pohl, Richard (1883). Franz Liszt. Studien und Erinnerungen: Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker, vol.2. Leipzig: Bernhard Schlicke. p. 402.) The variations depict death visiting all sorts.

Franz Liszt utilized the Dies Irae as the basis of his theme and variations Totentanz

Musically, the whole piece is centred on the Dies Irae. Its most notable contribution to the growth of Dies Irae use is the four-note introduction at the beginning, which has become the standard fixation used in referencing the motif.

Liszt’s Totentanz: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xfb6DjbeYXI

The Tchernabog as depicted in Fantasia

Mussorgsky produced the next well-known and large-scale piece to reference the Dies Irae. Inspired by Russian literary works and legend, Modest Mussorgsky created one of the first Russian tone poems, depicting a witches’ Sabbath. Composed during his youth, the piece was never performed during his lifetime. It was taken up by his friend, Rimsky-Korsakov and arranged by him five years after Mussorgsky’s death—the version the world is most familiar with. This is the version used in Disney’s Fantasia (1940).

Mussorgsky described the piece in a letter to Vladimir Nikolsky:

“So far as my memory doesn’t deceive me, the witches used to gather on this mountain, … gossip, play tricks and await their chief — Satan. On his arrival they, i.e. the witches, formed a circle round the throne on which he sat, in the form of a kid, and sang his praise. When Satan was worked up into a sufficient passion by the witches’ praises, he gave the command for the sabbath, in which he chose for himself the witches who caught his fancy. So this is what I’ve done. At the head of my score I’ve put its content: 1. Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; 2. Satan’s journey; 3. Obscene praises of Satan; and 4. Sabbath… The form and character of the composition are Russian and original… I wrote St. John’s Night quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God… While at work on St. John’s Night I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me.” (Musorgskiy, M., M. P. Musorgskiy: Letters, 2nd edition, Gordeyeva, Ye. (editor), Moscow: Muzïka (Music, publisher), 1984 [Мусоргский, М., М. П. Мусоргский: Письма, Гордеева, Е., Москва: Музыка, 1984], 73-74.)

Modest Mussorgsky was known to have used the Dies Irae in at least two pieces.

“From Rimsky-Korsakov’s recollections it is known that hearing the Russian premiere of Liszt’s Totentanz in March 1866 (a piece which immediately was accepted by the Mighty Handful) inspired Musorgsky to complete the task. He finished St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain in 1867…. It practically comes as no surprise, then, that Liszt-inspired outbursts of the Dies irae are strewn throughout the piece, most effectively at its orgiastic climax. Rimsky-Korsakov clearly recognized the reference and left them in his revision. The whirlwind which opens the piece starts with a brief four-note phrase in the lower strings which more than hints at the Dies irae… After the introduction is restated to preface Tchernobog’s entrance [the Tchernobog or Chernobog is an old Slavic deity used at times to represent Satan], a variety of themes are tossed about, culminating in a wild dance prior to the village bells’ peals of dawn. At the peak of this witches’ sabbath (a clear tip of the hat to Berlioz), the celebrations are punctuated by various brass and woodwind utterances of the same type of distorted four-note Dies irae quotations.” (Rachmaninoff and Dies Irae, Vincent Pallaver, February 2004, 8-9.) The original score version (pre-Rimsky-Korsakov editing) is a bit different and needs further analysis, but utilizes the Dies Irae. The “Night on Bald Mountain”is a popular piece composed by Modest Mussorgsky containing the Dies Irae as part of a musical depiction of a witch’s Sabbath.

Night on Bald Mountain in Fantasia (Rimsky-Korsakov) (see 0:05-0:43; 5:29-4:41; 6:08-6:20): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYSbxRiUgOo

Original Score Night on the Bare Mountain (0:00-0:57; 10:20-10:45): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zje-1VjG0I8

Mussorgsky would return to the Dies Irae again in 1875, this time bringing out the dance of death motif more than “Night on Bald Mountain” did. In his last song cycle, Songs and Dances of Death, the third song (Trepak) is filled with four-note references to the motif. It opens with the fragment deep in the bass of the piano, and from there is given to seemingly random rhythmic variations, giving the piece a sense of aimlessness. The poem that serves as the text of the piece as a whole “depicts Death dancing with a drunk farmer lost in a blizzard, urging the man to rest and fall asleep in the cold.” (Rachmaninoff and Dies Irae, Vincent Pallaver, February 2004, 10.) It could be said that this song is a very powerful representation of the dance of death in a realistic way.

Trepak: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsZX8pQWz-A

Skeletons dancing in the graveyard became an image associated with Dance Macabre and were incorporated into a piece of the same name

One of the most enjoyable and vivd pieces to bring out the dance of death motif is the “Dance Macabre” by Saint-Saëns, op. 40 (1874). This piece intertwines the old Medieval themes of the dance of death with the relatively new idea of skeletons dancing in a graveyard at night. In so doing, he was influenced by the poetry of both Goethe and Henri Cazalis (quoted below).  Saint-Saëns also plays off of “the interesting ethnomusicological association of Death as a violinist or fiddler. This motif is common in many cultures” (Inquiry, 13) (think “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”).

According to Wikipedia, the program for the music is as follows: “According to legend, ‘Death’ appears at midnight every year on Halloween. Death calls forth the dead from their graves to dance their dance of death for him while he plays his fiddle (here represented by a solo violin). His skeletons dance for him until the rooster crows at dawn, when they must return to their graves until the next year.

“The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, D, twelve times (the twelve strokes of midnight) which is accompanied by soft chords from the string section. The solo violin enters playing the tritone (or “Devil’s interval”) consisting of an A and an E-flat.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danse_macabre_(Saint-Sa%C3%ABns), accessed 4 Oct 2012.)  “After the dazzling fugue on the devil’s waltzing theme in section C, the Dies irae makes its entrance. It is slightly melodically transformed, and rhythmically nearly unrecognizable. Saint-Saëns gives the theme first to the woodwinds and then to the brass. The first time it’s played the initial interval is a major second (shown here), but the second time the initial interval is the traditional minor second.” (Rachmaninoff and Dies Irae, Vincent Pallaver, February 2004, 9.)

This piece has become very popular, particularly at this time of year, and stands as one of the most notable representations of the dance of death in music. The two poems that helped inspire this enjoyable work are as follows:

Camille Saint-Saëns

“Totentanz” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The warder looks down at the mid hour of night,

On the tombs that lie scatter’d below:

The moon fills the place with her silver light,

And the churchyard like day seems to glow.

When see! First one grave, the another opens wide,

And women and men stepping forth are descried

In cerements snow-white and trailing.

In hast for the sport soon their ankles they twitch,

And whirl round in dances so gay;

The young and the old, and the poor, and the rich,

But the cerements stand in their way;

And as modesty cannot avail them aught here,

They shake themselves all, and the shrouds soon appear

Scattere’d over the tombs in confusion.

Now waggles the leg, and no wriggles the thigh,

As the troop with strange gestures advance,

And a rattle and clatter anon rises high,

As of one beating time to the dance.

The sight to the warder seems wondrously queer,

When the villainous Tempter speaks thus in his ear:

“Seize one of the shrouds that lie younder!”

Quick as thought it was done! And for safety he fled

Behind the church-door with all speed;

The moon still continues her clear light to shed

On the dance that they fearfully lead.

But the dances at length disappear one by one,

And their shrouds, ere they vanish, they carefully don,

And under the turf all is quiet.

But one of them stumbles and shuffles there still,

And gropes at the graves in despair;

Yet ‘tis by no comrade he’s treated so ill

The shroud he soon scents in the air.

So he rattles the door—for the warder ‘tis well

That ‘tis bless’d, and so able to foe to repel,

All cover’d with crosses in metal.

The shroud he must have, and no rest will allow,

There remains for reflection no time;

On the ornaments Gothic the wight seizes now,

And from point on to point hastes to climb.

Alas for the warder! His doom is decreed!

Like a long-legged spider, with ne’er-changing speed,

Advances the dreaded pursuer.

The warder he quakes, and the warder turns pale,

The shroud to restore fain had sought;

When the end,–now can nothing to save him avail—

In a tooth formed of iron is caught.

With vanishing luster the moon’s race is run,

When the bell thunders loudly a powerful One,

And the skeleton fails, crush’d to atoms.

(ENGLISH translation from The Poems of Goethe – Translated in the Original Metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring, E. A. B. London, 1874. Http://german.about.com/library/bltotentanz.htm, accessed 3 Oct 2012.)


“Dance Macabre” by Henri Cazalis

Zig, zig, zig, Death in cadence,

Striking a tomb with his heel,

Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,

Zig, zig, zag, on his violin.

The winter wind blows, and the night is dark;

Moans are heard in the linden trees.

White skeletons pass through the gloom,

Running and leaping in their shrouds.

Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,

You can hear the cracking of the bones of the dancers.

A lustful couple sits on the moss

So as to taste long lost delights.

Zig zig, zig, Death continues

The unending scraping on his instrument.

A veil has fallen! The dancer is naked.

Her partner grasps her amorously.

The lady, it’s said, is a marchioness or baroness

And her green gallant, a poor cartwright.

Horror! Look how she gives herself to him,

Like the rustic was a baron.

Zig, zig, zig. What a saraband!

They all hold hands and dance in circles.

Zig, zig, zag. You can see in the crowd

The king dancing among the peasants.

But hist! All of a sudden, they leave the dance,

They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed.

Oh what a beautiful night for the poor world!

Long live death and equality!

(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danse_macabre_(Saint-Sa%C3%ABns), accessed 4 Oct 2012.)

Dance Macabre (see 2:45-3:15): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CHqhsMP80E

From there the use of the Dies Irae seems to have become more general. Franz Schubert used it in his lied Death and the Maiden, Gustav Mahler used the idea in his Symphony No. 2 (1895)—“a programmatic journey through death, remembrance, fear, resurrection, judgment, and finally, a moved to eternal bliss” (Inquiry, 13).Tchaikovsky used the motif in the Manfred Symphony (1885) at the point representing Manfred’s death and also incorporated it into his Orchestral Suite #3, IV (1884), Symphony 5, IV (1888) and his Grand Piano Sonata in G major (1878). Brahms based his Intermezzo in E-flat minor, op. 118 no. 6 (1893) on Dies Irae only a few years before his own death, Richard Strauss included it in Till Eulenspiegel (1894) and it even makes a brief appearance in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” A true list could even go further and point out dozens of other references.

Arnold Böcklin’s 1886 Isle of the Dead Painting

Arnold Böcklin’s 1886 Isle of the Dead Painting

The one composer who seems to have developed the deepest obsession with the Dies Irae is Sergei Rachmaninoff: Almost every major work he wrote includes at least one reference to the Dies Irae motif. The first, second and third symphonies; the piano sonata 1; the Bells; the 4th piano concerto and his concluding work, the Symphonic Dances all make reference to this dark, brooding theme. Even the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with its lush 18th variation is laced with the old chant tune. Many reasons have been given for why he utilized our theme so much. Perhaps the most practical is that “In realizing his compositional disposition, Rachmaninoff had a natural mannerism which lent itself with great facility and frequency to Dies irae.” (Rachmoninov and Dies Irae, 32.)

Sergei Rachmaninoff seems to have had an obsession with the Dies Irae

For brevity, I will only cover one of Rachmaninoff’s works in-depth: “The Isle of the Dead.” Inspired by the Arnold Böcklin painting of the same name, this tone poem depicts the rowing of a boat to the aforementioned island. Two primary motifs make up the work: one in a 5/8 rhythm that seems to be mimicking either the waves lapping the shore of the island or the boat’s rowing its fated passengers along; the other is rooted in the Dies Irae.

“After a long pianissimo introduction of the 5/8 rhythm, the very first hint at the Dies irae theme is dropped by a single French horn… Solo introductions of this motif are slowly passed around the brass and woodwinds while the strings continue lapping against the shore. For the first several minutes the strings’ ostinato is still the driving musical force, but they eventually become relegated to the background as the Dies irae motif is given more prominence. After a grave and urgent proclamation of the ‘wave’ theme and an equally funereal echo of the Dies irae motif, the piece yields to a middle section of entirely different character.

“Woodard claims that the theme of this middle passage is both a variant and derivative of the Dies irae, but this makes little sense to the ears. Its character is different, being more lyrical and chromatic, and in a different key. In addition, we know from the composer in a letter to Stokowski that this tune was somehow injected into the work:

“‘It should be a great contrast to all the rest of the work – faster, more nervous and more emotional – as that passage does not belong to the “picture,” – it is in reality a “supplement” to the picture – which in fact makes the contrast all the more necessary. In the former is death – in the latter is life.’

“Of even greater importance in the above quote is the admission of death as pervading the outside moods of the piece, particularly since Rachmaninoff was so secretive in revealing the inspirations or programmes of his works. After this middle theme combines with the Dies irae motif to rush to the crashing climax of the piece in measure 365, the music begins a long process of ebbing away. The first step is a creepy tremolo canon on the Dies irae motif.

“After this canon, the music continues to die away gloomily, mirroring the movement of the opening half of the piece. At the closing pianissimo bars of the piece, the cellos and bassoons have a note-for-note quotation of the first phrase of the Dies irae played to the rocking waves accompaniment.

“One wonders what Rachmaninoff’s impetus was for ‘saying the obvious’ at the end of Isle of the Dead. … One might surmise that he was helping his audience identify that dark je-ne-sais-quoi which permeated his works. I am inclined to believe that the final true quotation of the Dies irae adds remarkable weight to the twenty minutes of music that had just preceded.” (Rachmoninov and Dies Irae, 20-21.)

Isle of the Dead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbbtmskCRUY&feature=related


Death is something we all ponder at some point, as it is something we all face. This fact has led to the depiction of a “dance of the dead” in the folklore of the past. During the romantic era, the Gregorian funeral chant Dies Irae became associated with this folk motif in music. Classical composers such as Berlioz, Liszt, Mussorgsky, and Saint-Saëns referenced the chant in pieces dealing with death. From there, references became more common in music. Rachmaninoff was one composer who seems to have developed an obsession with the motif in his music. Nowadays, the Dies Irae has become the musical motif of choice when it comes to death.


  1. Jake Harris · · Reply

    Chad this is a bit weird. Slightly interesting but weird. I did like the quote from McConkie.

    1. I knew that it was an odd subject, but one I’ve found to be interesting over the years. Plus, I felt it was fitting for Halloween. You might find my other posts more in line with what you like, though. You asked about family history for one: https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/zera-pulsipher-the-man-who-baptized-wilford-woodruff/ is about one of my ancestors. Most of them are about Church history and doctrine.

  2. […] and its appearance an context in classical music in relation to the Totentanz or dance of  death (https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/dies-irae-and-the-totentanz/). Both the Dies Irae and the Totentanz are what we call a motif—a recurring subject, theme, idea, […]

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