After critically-acclaimed performances in London and Warsaw, Thomas Adès’ most recent work, Totentanz, receives its American premiere this March by the New York Philharmonic conducted by the composer.
Bringing together baritone and mezzo-soprano soloists with a (very) large orchestra, Totentanz is Adès’ longest composition for the concert hall to date. Written for the – talents of baritone Simon Keenlyside (who created the role of Prospero in The Tempest) and mezzo soprano Christianne Stotijn, it is the culmination of Adès’ long fascination with dances of death, previously documented in the tango mortale from Arcadiana (1994), the drug-fuelled dance music of Asyla (1997) and the devilish cancan macabre which closes Lieux Retrouvés (2009). 
Totentanz is based on a thirty-metre-long hanging of painted cloth made in 1463 for the church of St Mary in Lübeck (itself subject to mortality, having been replaced by a copy in the eighteenth century which was then destroyed during World War II). Following the lead of the freize (and setting its original German text), the piece unfolds as a dialogue between a charismatic and gleefully macabre Grim Reaper (baritone) and the procession of his many victims (mezzo) who we meet in strictly descending order of importance, from Pope and Cardinal to Maiden and Child. Adès paints each character vividly; clangourous anvils and military side-drum herald the Knight whilst rustic, off-kilter horn writing signal the Peasant.  ‘The dance of death is not an optional dance’, observes Adès, ‘it’s the one we all have to join in. It’s supposed to be at the same time terrifying, levelling and also funny – it’s absurd… the thing that makes it comic is the total powerlessness of everybody, no matter who they are’.
Although the work begins with an orderly alternation of voices, Death has very little time for the middle classes, and soon vocal lines start piling-up as he interrupts them, the music accelerating towards an earth-shattering climax where the full orchestra is unleashed in aleatoric outburst reminiscent of Witold Lutosławski, the work’s dedicatee. With Totentanz Adès joins a long line of composers who have tackled the subject (including Berlioz, Liszt, Mussorgsky and Schubert) and his music constantly alludes to that tradition. The dance is set in motion by a piercing, jagged rendering of the Dies Irae in shrill winds whilst percussion is prominent throughout, with eight players utilising all manner of whistles, ratchets and animal bones, as well as a vast Taiko drum, to powerful effect.
'Until its unnervingly tonal ending, when the world’s vanities seem to slither into an eerie Mahlerian lullaby, Adès’s score is mostly brutal, exploiting screeching high sonorities or grunting low ones, with a crippled, lurching momentum. That makes it sound unpleasant. Yet I found it thrilling: one of his best.'
'Adès, with unfaltering dramatic instinct, has seized on the piece's dark playfulness…What is most striking is how frightening the music is, the entire orchestra in uproar, fighting for its life.'
Whilst Totentanz’s vast scale, compelling drama and totally individual sound world all made a powerful impact at its 2013 BBC Proms premiere (described by The Telegraph as ‘cultural event of the first magnitude’), it was the work’s intimate closing passages, where death meets a new-born child, which ultimately made the strongest impression on audiences. ‘The baby is actually everybody’, notes Adès, who has created a finale of Mahlerian poignancy which soars gracefully aloft before being wrenched back to the depths of the orchestra. For The Arts Desk’s Alexandra Coughlan it was ‘a coup de théâtre that reverses expectations, not piercing onwards to the bone beneath the skin but retreating to the fleshy fantasy of human life’.
More details of the US premiere of Totentanz can be found here
View Totentanz on the Faber Music Online Score Library here