Thomas Ades Totetanz

by Simon Collings

Thomas Adès Totentanz, which received its world premiere on 17 July, has to be one of the highlights of this season’s BBC Proms. It’s a brilliant if grim work. The unrelenting focus on death makes for uneasy listening but it is a piece rich in detail and colour. The orchestration makes use of an exotic array of percussion instruments.

Totentanz takes its inspiration from a painted cloth, 30 metres long, which once hung in St Mary’s church in Lübeck. The original was destroyed but drawings and sketches survive. Death is depicted as a skeletal figure, wrapped in a shroud, seizing the arms of people of various rank, as though inviting them to dance. Verses accompany each vignette, recounting the words of death and the reactions of the victims. Adès sets these verses, with the part of death sung by a baritone, and those of all his victims by a soprano. The orchestra provides the musical equivalent to the painted illustration: grotesque, mocking, terrifying.

 Death’s invitation brooks no argument. Some protest, some lament, others go quietly. In the opening sequences the singers follow each other but later they overlap in a series of duets. There is a particularly poignant moment when a handworker prays for eternal life while death sings ‘for your soul it will be hard.’ ‘Leben’ and ‘schwer’ are juxtaposed and the falling away of the voices is chilling. Several victims are carried off in quick succession, culminating in a sustained cacophony of horror. With other of the victims the scenes are more extended. Adès draws on a wide range of musical styles and genres. The monk is carried off to the strains of waltz while a distorted folk dance accompanies the demise of the peasant.

The final sequences are particularly moving. A young maiden succumbs without resistance, meekly, obediently. The final victim, a baby, cannot understand how he can dance when he cannot even walk. The sound world here is almost Mahlerian. The orchestra plays a limping dance rhythm, a grotesque parody of a child’s first steps. At the end only the percussion are left sounding this spare broken rhythm, all fading to silence.

Simon Keenlyside was superb as death, as was Christianne Stotijn in the roles of the dying. A recording of the performance can be heard on the BBC Listen Again service until 24 July. Don’t miss it.