University of Arkansas, Fayetteville


During the pivotal November 2002 football game of Arkansas vs. Georgia in the SEC conference championship, the Georgia marching band struck up their defensive rallying song. Instead of a typical "defense" song, the band played an excerpt of the Gregorian Sequence Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath'') from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. Drastically dissociated from its original medieval milieu, this musical Sequence still manages to elicit the same effect of fear and foreboding nearly a thousand years later. Precisely because of its deep musical and cultural roots, the Dies Irae occupies a significant place in history, closely intertwined from early on with the medieval folk motif Totentanz ("Dance of Death"), widely depicted in medieval art, and dramatically revived in 19th century music, art, and literature. This multi-disciplinary study focuses on the history of art and music of these two medieval themes during their development, and then moves on to study them in 19th century culture. Specifically, the manipulation of the original Gregorian chant and the incorporation of the idea of a medieval dance are analyzed in the music of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Camille Saint-Saens. Numerous other contextual links are explored as well, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Victor Hugo, Henri Cazalis, William Blake, and Alfred Rethel, all of whom created 19th century artistic or literary masterpieces derived from the thematic seeds of the Dies Irae and the Totentanz. Although neither of these ideas endured in their original form during the Romantic era, the inherently compelling nature of these themes that center on the macabre but inevitable end of life captivated the Romantic geniuses and continue to intrigue us to this day.

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