Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Totentanz, the Dance of Death

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Great is the matter of birth and death
Time is fleeting, gone, gone
Awake! Awake! Each one!
Don’t waste this life!

This short poem is written on a wooden plank at the San Francisco Zen Center called a han, which is struck by a mallet to call the monks to meditation. It echoes a common call made by masters of many traditions to recollect death as a way of disentangling the mind from its usual attitude of immersion in the minutiae of day-to-day struggle and gratification, so we can see our lives, if only briefly, from a loftier perspective.

Thomas Aquinas wrote that it is ironic, that while death destroys us, the knowledge of death saves us. Tsong Khapa wrote in a similar vein that the source of all suffering is the belief “I will not die today.”

In Europe of the High Middle Ages, the recollection of death was called forth with great power by the Totentanz, or Dance of Death. Often depicted in sweeping murals, the Dance illustrates the grisly specter of death in a pas de deux with people of all walks of life, from the highest emperor to the lowliest peasant. The message is as simple and direct as it is profound – the time of death comes to all, rich or poor, great or small.

toten

Many individual scenes are deeply affecting, such as this frame from a Totentanz I saw in the Bernisches Historisches Museum in Switzerland. It’s a moving touch, seeing how the child holds to the hem of his mother’s gown, not wanting to go.

Hans Holbein created one of the great exemplars of the Dance of Death in a series of woodblock prints, which you can browse here. Many of them have great expressive and dramatic impact – some of my favorites are the nobleman, the rich man, and the abbess.

Holbein’s collection has recently been published in a very fine Penguin Classics edition with a commentary by Ulinka Rublack, which I highly recommend.

One of my favorite contemporary composers, Thomas Adès, recently wrote an  oratorio called Totentanz based on this motif. For the libretto, he takes a modern German translation of a fifteenth-century poem that accompanied the great Totentanz engraved in the Lübeck cathedral. If you’re curious you can find the original early German poem here, and you’ll find the modern libretto in the program notes of the performance I saw a few weeks ago here.

It opens roughly thus:

The Preacher: Oh upright creature, whether poor or rich,
See now the play, young and old alike,
And think you all upon it;
that none can live forever.

Death: To this dance I summon all,
Pope, emperor, monk, and peasant!
If I come, great or small,
No grief will avail you.
Always remember to do good works
To absolve your sins.
You must leap to my piping tune!

Adès’s oratorio is an extraordinary achievement, and a compelling modern take on the age-old motif. It is a work of uncommon artistic power and profundity, and it’s well worth exploring, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear it performed live.

This motif always reminds me of the early English folksong Lyke-Wake Dirge:

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire and fleet and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thy saule.

When thou from hence away art past
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou com’st at last
And Christe receive thy saule.

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thy saule.

If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane.
And Christe receive thy saule….

Check out this deeply uncanny rendition:

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Written by Mesocosm

May 8, 2018 at 1:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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