Frank Martin: Ein Totentanz zu Basel


We’ve been enjoying this varied and surprisingly light piece, considering it’s based on death (Amazon translates the title as dance macabre).

This is not the death of modern times. He’s more the death of Terry Pratchett, a sympathetic person who takes people off to the next world with a grin, albeit skeletal.

The work is based on a series of 15th century murals from a Dominican monastery in Basel. Death is a benign figure, dancing with those about to die before leading them off to (hopefully) a better place.

It was composed as a dance and mime show at the height of the Second World War for Mariette von Meyenburg, a mime artist, who asked her Uncle Frank to write it. It apparently portrays a series of scenes; death dancing with people about to pop their clogs.

It had us from the moment it opens with the stirring sound of Basel drums, a military drum. The sleeve notes report that their playing is almost a mania in Basel and today they are restricted in use — anywhere that has to control its population’s mad urge to play the drums seems a dandy place to us.

He might be describing murals but it also sounds like the progress of war, opening as it does with the drums of men marching off, followed by a men’s choir singing a capella in a style that’s similar to Gregorian chant. Death is unavoidable and you can’t take your property with you, say the lyrics.

It’s a sombre if stirring start but then comes more optimistic music, when Death tells an old man his time has not yet come. The rest of the CD is pretty jolly too, matching the spirit of the old concept of death. There’s plenty of variation, from marches and chorales to music that variously sounds like Grieg (Peer Gynt), Stravinsky, Copland and Gershwin. Its varied sounds make it akin to a film score, though it’s more internally coherent than music composed to follow a film.

It features The ARMAB orchestra from Portugal, the Breda Sacrament Choir, the Hineni String Orchestra, Geoffrey Madge, Bastiaan Blomhert and Edith Habroken playing those drums. Out on CPO 777997-2.


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