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FastNotes

  • “Dedicated to the memory of Witold Lutoslawski, Totentanz is a setting of the anonymous text that appeared under a 15th-century frieze in the Marienkirche, Lübeck, Germany,” Adès wrote in his brief note in the published score.

  • “…The frieze depicted members of every category of human society in strictly descending order of status, from the Pope to a baby. In between each human figure is an image of Death…each of the humans in turn is represented by a low soprano, and Death by a baritone.”

  • “The Dance of Death is not an optional dance,” Adès says in the videotaped introduction to the BBC telecast of the premiere. “It is one dance that we all have to dance.”

  • “It is supposed to be, at the same time, terrifying, leveling – everybody is equal, no one can escape it – and also it is funny, it’s absurd. The thing that makes it funny is the total powerlessness of everybody, no matter who they are.”


Composed: 2013
Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (1st & 2nd = piccolo; 3rd = piccolo & alto), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (1st = A & E-flat; 2nd & 3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (2nd & 3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets (all = flugelhorn), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (= rototoms), percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, marimba, crotales, tubular bells, 2 bell plates, 2 gongs, 4 anvils, steel sheet, 2 tam-tams, 8 suspended cymbals, crash cymbals, hi-hat, 4 side drums, snare drum, 2 military tenor drums, taiko, kit bass drum, cymbal on bass drum, bass drum, 2 swanee whistles, referee’s whistle, 2 siren whistles, 3 whips, 2 clappers, maracas, 2 ratchets, guero, tambourine, bamboo canes, bones), harp, piano (= celesta), strings, and solo mezzo-soprano and baritone

First LA Phil performances (West Coast premiere)

Adès’ Totentanz was commissioned in memory of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski and his wife Danuta by Robin Boyle, the former Managing Director of Chester Music, Lutoslawski’s publisher in the West. It was first performed by the BBC Symphony conducted by the composer at a BBC Promenade Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in July 2013, with soloists Christianne Stotijn and Simon Keenlyside. The U.S. premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic in March, 2015, with the composer again conducting, and Stotijn and Mark Stone the soloists.

“Dedicated to the memory of Witold Lutoslawski, Totentanz is a setting of the anonymous text that appeared under a 15th-century frieze in the Marienkirche, Lübeck, Germany,” Adès wrote in his brief note in the published score. “Destroyed by bombing in World War II, the frieze depicted members of every category of human society in strictly descending order of status, from the Pope to a baby. In between each human figure is an image of Death, dancing and inviting the humans to join him. In this setting, each of the humans in turn is represented by a low soprano, and Death by a baritone.”

Following the original text (and in the original German), Adès begins with a brief introduction by a preacher, then Death welcomes his cast to the dance. Fifteen character sketches and dialogues follow, each distinguished by vividly descriptive and expressive music. There is a big, raucous orchestral interlude after the Merchant’s vain protests, before the Parish Clerk dances to rather delicate music. In Adès’ music, as in the original art and text, the lower, less powerful characters are treated more gently than the mighty and rich, whose music is violent and sarcastic. The final lullaby with the Child rises to radiant rapture, but it fades into ominous final darkness over the repeated word “tanzen.”

“In Adès’ piece the baritone is death’s mouthpiece,” Andrew Clements wrote in The Guardian following the premiere,“– declamatory, angular, and rather Bergian (the opening of the work very much recalls the prologue to Lulu), with just a few moments of insidious quietness, while the mezzo, more lyrical, more vulnerable, represents the victims who vainly try to resist him. Throughout their exchanges the orchestral machine moves relentlessly on, constantly changing tack and inventing new sound-worlds but always keeping its power in reserve, and consuming everything it encounters. In the closing pages death and humanity seem to reach a truce in a passage of almost Straussian lyricism, Adès’ most frankly expressive music to date, but it proves only temporary and the work ends in the lowest depths of the orchestra, having worked its way downwards.”

“The Dance of Death is not an optional dance,” Adès says in the videotaped introduction to the BBC telecast of the premiere. “It is one dance that we all have to dance. It is supposed to be, at the same time, terrifying, leveling – everybody is equal, no one can escape it – and also it is funny, it’s absurd. The thing that makes it funny is the total powerlessness of everybody, no matter who they are.”

John Henken is Publications Editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.