Massey Recital Tempers Darkness with Resurrection

The Tallman Tracker Organ sits at the heart of the Hall of Christ.

The 19th-century Hungarian composer and organist Franz Liszt is somewhat of a great-grandfather to Jared Jacobsen.9

Jacobsen and Liszt are not related by blood, but by a lineage of piano and organ instructors. At 12:15 p.m. August 17 in the Amphitheater, Jacobsen will pay homage to Liszt by playing one of his pieces in the Massey Memorial Organ Recital: “Dances of Death and Life.”

In the 15th century, an artist painted a series of paintings that depicts “Death” coming to people within a town. Each painting tells the story of Death’s encounter with one person; it includes an old man, young man, mother, child and many others.

Liszt was inspired by those paintings and incorporated their stories into his piece “Totentanz,” which translates to English as “Dance of the Dead.”

“Franz Liszt loved this notion of death and life, and so he wrote this piece for piano and orchestra that’s all based on this idea of wrestling with death,” said Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. “The last of these paintings is when Death comes to a small child, who says essentially, ‘Come on now, I haven’t even had a life yet. You can’t possibly be coming to take me.’ ”

Jacobsen said Liszt was very good at writing pieces where he took only a couple small themes and expanded them to be something larger. He said Liszt’s pieces on death sound “like a breath of death on the back of your neck when you’re not expecting it.”

In Liszt’s musical depiction of Death coming to take little child, Death decides to let the child live.

“In the middle, it’s like there’s this huge storm in the piano and the orchestra, and then it all simmers down and there’s this absolutely celestial music in the key of B major, which Liszt reserved for his most profound, most beautiful music,” Jacobsen said. “And the little child is depicted in these just gentle, shimmering chords — they’re so delicate you almost can’t even tell they’re there.”

But since “The Dance of Death and Life” has two sides, Jacobsen will play “The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky to counteract the dark themes of “Totentanz.”

Jacobsen said the piece is a folktale about the cycle of life. Its plot depicts a bird that is killed when its nest catches fire. But the bird’s egg survives the fire and, in the end, a new bird is reborn.

The very last chord Jacobsen will play in the piece is the longest, loudest chord he can play on the Massey Memorial Organ.

“The last two movements of this are a little lullaby, and then the last [section] of ‘The Firebird’ on the Massey Organ is just fantastic,” Jacobsen said. “So after we have this dark dance of death, with the devil probably winning most of the arguments, then I’m happy to play my reworking of Stravinsky’s ‘The Firebird’ where resurrection gets the last word.”

Madison Rossi

The author Madison Rossi

Hailing from Chicago, Madison Rossi is the 2016 Interfaith Lecture preview reporter. She is a class of 2018 journalism major at Northwestern University with minors in marketing and religious studies.