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TOTENTANZ (Dance of the Dead): Remembering 9/11

“Triumph of Death” by Francesco Traini, Pisa

The tragic events of September 11, 2001 are forever linked in my mind to Franz Liszt’s Totentanz and not only because the German title translates into “Dance of the Dead.” Totentanz was one of many pieces by the Hungarian composer showcased at the Liszt International Piano Competition that fall. I was attending the Competition in Budapest when the planes struck the Twin Towers.

That Tuesday morning in 2001 began on a promising note. I sipped Earl Grey on my balcony as a soft breeze rustled through the birch trees, and revelled in the warmth of Indian summer. I eagerly awaited the start of my first English teaching gig and was thrilled that my remaining free time coincided with the Competition. A pianist from childhood, I’d also been an avid Liszt fan since hearing my mother play “Liebestraum” during our music lessons. I was sure that attending the Semifinals at the Liszt Academy would be one of the biggest “pinch me” moments of my musical life.

Upon entering the Great Hall, I wondered if King Midas had been among the Academy’s designers: every inch of the sumptuous Art Nouveau interior was covered in gold and green marble. Sensuous female statues depicting musical tempos, like Adagio, stared down at the SRO crowd. The stage was awash in light radiating from enormous crystal-brass chandeliers and stained glass windows.

The Great Hall, Liszt Academy of Music

For the next few hours, top-notch pianists from around the world dazzled the audience with Liszt’s most popular works, including Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and the “Dante Sonata.” For the first time, I heard the dark, mysterious Nuages Gris. I didn’t realize this name was an omen until Intermission, when the “Grey Clouds” descended.

During the break, I headed to nearby Oktogon for a quick snack when my friend Heléna called. “I’ve been trying to reach you for hours,” she panted into the phone. I had no idea why she kept uttering the words “plane” and “tower,” and assumed yet another language barrier. Only after she shouted, “New York!” (the city of my birth) did I change direction and rush to her place.

Heléna met me at her door with a large glass of Bikavér (a red wine known as “Bull’s Blood”) and guided me toward the sofa, where we tried to fathom the disturbing live and recorded images of huge aircraft crashing into the Twin Towers. As gigantic balls of fire engulfed the uppermost floors and smoke billowed from shattered glass windows in real time, the second Tower buckled. I gasped.

“Maybe like the Nostradamus predict, world coming to end,” Heléna told me. This time, I had no difficulty grasping the gravity of her words. My heart and thoughts raced to my parents, both native New Yorkers, who often traveled to Manhattan for the day. I dialed their Amherst home and let out a huge sigh when Mom picked up the phone.

For the next few hours, Heléna and I sat with our eyes glued to the TV set, budging only to replenish our wine glasses. Eventually, I left in a haze of tears and wove my way back to my apartment, where I hibernated the following week. Although my new acquaintances, mostly Hungarians, called to offer their support and condolences, I longed for the company of a fellow American, but I didn’t know any expats from the States. I felt lonely and homesick for my American family and friends.

The Twin Towers before 9/11

I tried to conjure up the soothing strains of “Liebestraum” that had lulled me into a semi-stupor in the Great Hall, but the Piano Competition seemed a distant blur; with some regret, I decided to forego the remaining concerts. Instead, I stayed put and contemplated canceling my teaching contract and moving back to the U.S. Then I’d glance at my CELTA teaching certificate and would be overcome with conflicting emotions. I’d worked hard in the three-month training course and had enjoyed my foray into this new profession. Was I really going to walk away from the opportunity to teach abroad and go back home?

My mind awhirl, I thought nothing could pull me from these shadowy thoughts until Heléna showed up on my doorstep with two tickets to the Piano Competition Gala Concert at the Academy. I couldn’t resist.

Arriving back at the Great Hall, she and I learned that no First Prize had been awarded but a young Hungarian pianist, Péter Tóth, had won Second Prize. He was slated to perform Totentanz at the end of the program with Maestro András Ligeti conducting members of the MATÁV Hungarian Symphony Orchestra.

Totentanz had haunted Liszt throughout his life. He first composed this symphonic poem with Medieval overtones in 1839 after being captivated by a fresco, “Triumph of Death” (attributed to Francesco Traini), at Campo Santo in Pisa (see photo above). He then spent two more decades revising Totentanz until the final version was performed in 1865 at The Hague.

I put down the concert program, and moments later, thunderous applause greeted the 18-year old prodigy as he entered the stage, taking long strides toward the Steinway grand. Péter bowed to the audience and orchestra members and then pulled his black tuxedo tails back before sitting at the piano. (You can watch this performance in two parts below.)

Péter Tóth plays Totentanz (part 1)

Maestro Ligeti held up his baton, waiting for Péter’s hands to jump onto the ivories, which they did with an enormous thud. Then brass players entered with the ominous theme, unleashing the Devil in his stomping grounds: the Abyss at Ground Zero. I closed my eyes and imagined that wretched day in New York…

Somewhere in the clear blue sky, a plane veers out of control. The thunder of restless chords culminates in an explosive cymbal crash—the North Tower has been struck!

Péter rips the tumultuous melody from the other musicians, his fingers scampering up and down the ivories and dislodging shards of glass, which fly through the fiery sky. A succession of rapid notes and trills follow: thousands of innocent panicky hearts thump in unison against a crescendo of havoc. Shock waves creep up and down the Tower, causing it to buckle. Bodies, like meteors, litter the hellish skies.

Then, stone silence. Slowly the melody crawls in, meanders, seeks rest; the tempo skids down. Two bassoonists weave a duet against the plucking of anxious strings. A trumpet cries out in agony. Péter’s left hand pounds out the macabre theme, his right is lost in glissandi created by sliding his thumbs and the back of his hand up and down the ivories. He then pounces onto the piano, like a lion protecting its young as the brass fight back, defiant.

During the prayer-like variation, angels descend; their feathers fall, along with ashes, chunks of metal, and wiring into the Abyss. While a peaceful lullaby fills the skies, they carry the dying up to the Everafter on their wings. Only the wailing of a lone clarinet reminds the victims of the earthly suffering they’ve left behind.

Péter Tóth plays Totentanz, Part 2

Suddenly, from out of the ash heap, the Devil rears up, the snare of his voice piercing the reverie. Willowy flutes fight to keep the peace, but Satan stokes the bonfire’s flames.

Distant footsteps approach and then race up the stairwells. Can help be on the way? Firemen yank hoses and sirens blast, emergency vehicles screech through the soot-covered city streets. Expressions of hope dominate, but the French horns hurl fireballs; the violins struggle to douse the flames. Finally, the cymbal’s earth-shattering boom rattles the room. A second plane crashes into the South Tower!

While the Orchestra catches its breath, Péter attacks the cadenza. His right hand leaps up and down the upper registers, desperately looking for an escape, but is overcome by his left hand hammering the keys in the lower one. The conductor guides the musicians as they seep back in with the triumphant brass section blaring out the shifting theme.

The piano and flute weave a tender duet, recalling the innocence of first love; a triangle bestows a blessing. Using broad bow strokes, the violins sneer at such a show of affection. The diabolical theme pulsates in the piano, foreshadowing the Devil’s return.

The Devil is back, staggering between the two teetering Towers. Péter whips the keys, begging for mercy, but this final attempt is pushed back by the full weight of the Orchestra. Together, they all spiral down into the Abyss, the last gasp of chords striking nails into the coffin of Humanity.

I stifled a sob and exhaled a loud “Bravo,” grateful to be back among the living.

detail from “Triumph of Death”

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