Momento Mori

Imagine a disease running unchecked through society, infecting everyone without regard to age or social status. A person could be fine in the morning, feverish and bedridden by the afternoon, and dying a painful death in less than 48 hours. Entire families are wiped out, villages are left with few survivors. Each day, in all the cities and towns the bodies of those who died overnight were placed out into the street. Eventually funeral biers would come through the streets and collect the corpses. An eyewitness records the following:

It was by no means rare for more than one of these biers to be
seen with two or three bodies upon it at a time. Many were seen
to contain a husband and wife, two or three brothers and sisters,
a father and son, and times without number it happened that two priests would be on their way to bury someone, only to find bearers
carrying three or four additional biers would fall in behind them.
Such was the multitude of corpses that there was not sufficient
consecrated ground for them to be buried in, so when all the graves
were full, huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into
which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed tier upon
tier like ships’ cargo, each layer of corpses being covered over with a
thin layer of soil till the trench was filled to the top

This is not a scene from the fall premier of AMC’s hit show, The Walking Dead. This is an eyewitness account recorded by Giovanni Boccaccio, writer of the Decameron, of life during the deadliest pandemic the world has seen. The translation is taken from the notes to Professor Dorsy Armstrong’s lectures on The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague, part of the Great Courses series. The Great Mortality, as it was known, took the lives of over half of Europe’s population in the mid fourteenth-century. It upended society and the established social order, and population levels didn’t return to pre-plague levels for over two hundred years. The disease didn’t disappear either, returning with outbreak every few years for over a century.

17th Century Plague Doctor
Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

As horrible as COVID-19 has been for the world in 2020, the Black Death makes it seem like child’s play by comparison. Likewise I can have no complaint about wearing a surgical mask when compared to the ghoulish protective gear a Plague Doctor would wear. The long and horrifying beak on the mask would be stuffed with straw and aromatic herbs to protect the doctor from putrid air. I can’t imagine there was anything that resembled a bedside manner for practitioners in these costumes.

Good Music and Art are often a reaction to or representation of the world in which the artist lives. Something as life-altering as the Great Mortality had a variety of artistic reactions. The Danse Macabre is a thematic genre that arose in the years following the plague. In visual art, it usually consists of a skeleton or skeletons representing death coming to take away victims from all walks of life and dance them away from their earthly existence. It was no matter if you were a pauper or a king, sinner or saint, death was coming for all of us. The Danse Macabre is part of a larger art tradition of momento mori (roughly translated as “remember you are going to die”).

Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a tone poem in this tradition, his Danse Macabre Op.40, based on a text version by the poet Henri Cazalis. In this musical version, Death is represented by a solo violin with its high E string tuned down to E flat, creating a tritone interval with the A string. (The tritone had a reputation as the diabolis in musica). On Halloween, the personification of Death would come at midnight playing a fiddle and calling forth the corpses from their graves to dance an unholy dance through the night. The frenzied dance goes on until dawn when a rooster crows (played by an oboe in the orchestra), signaling time for the skeletons to return to their grave for another year. Saint-Saëns writes music that is very picturesque, driving and rhythmic, and also quite easy to follow with that brief narrative in mind. The piece opens with the harp playing the note D twelve times in a row, striking midnight on our musical clock.

The German name for this Dance of the Dead is Totentanz. When Franz Liszt became music director at the Weimar court and turned his attention to composing, one of his first works was a piece for orchestra and solo piano that he titled Totentanz. He took his inspiration from a set of woodcuts by the Renaissance artist Hans Holbein. These 54 woodcuts are depictions in the momento mori/Danse Macabre vein, showing Death portrayed as skeleton who is harvesting people during the Great Mortality plague of the fourteenth-century. Death’s victims are again from all strata of society and many different walks of life. Liszt’s work is a tour de force of Romantic era drama, emotional excess, virtuosity and individual expression outweighing musical form. Robert Greenberg describes is as “half symphonic poem, half piano-concerto and half theme and variations”, which is admittedly three halves but somehow fits.

The Totentanz by Liszt is subtitles Paraphrase on the Dies Irae. The Dies Irae is the thirteenth-century chant about the Day of Judgement from the Catholic Mass for the Dead. It has become an iconograph in music for unpleasant death. To begin to unravel the three halves of Liszt’s piece, we have to have this chant in our ears.

Liszt starts his piece with the solo piano pounding muddy dissonant clusters in the low end of the piano, with the brass coming in shortly after belting out his version of the Dies Irae. I have to admit that in my younger years, this was just the sort of opening I would aspire to compose. Following the brass statement of the Dies Irae, the first of three piano cadenzas depicts the sounds of Death’s skeletal bones rattling, then the ancient chant becomes the theme for a set a variations. The theme and variations form begins to break down midway through the piece, with a second theme popping in just because Liszt wants it to and he can have it do so.

In his Great Courses lectures entitled “Concert Masterworks”, Robert Greenberg points out that Liszt’s Totentanz is considered “vulgar, crude, rude and base” but also that it is an example of Romantic era excess at its very best. It is grotesque, brutal and shocking, because it is meant to be. Audiences of its time wanted tremendous virtuosity, and Totentanz delivers. The Romantic era aesthetic championed the artist as a hero, one who delivered extreme emotional expression. Subjects like the Dance of the Dead, born and fueled by the reaction to the devastating plague of the Great Mortality, was a natural fit for a composer like Franz Liszt. I wonder what artistic reactions the future will have when the world has a chance to breath freely after the Covid pandemic.


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2 thoughts on “Momento Mori

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  1. A wonderful post. I’ve been thinking of the time (the multiple times) of the Black Plague often during these past months. We can’t even imagine what people went through then, not least because they didn’t even know what caused the disease.

    By the way, it’s “memento,” not “momento.”

    Wishing you continued good health and great music!

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