Frederic Rzewski: Notes on The Triumph Of Death

The Triumph Of Death (1987) is an oratorio in eleven parts, with a Prologue and Epilogue, based on texts adapted from Peter Weiss' play Die Ermittlung (The Investigation), itself based on actual testimony from the 1964 trial of former Auschwitz guards in Frankfurt.

The titles of the individual sections are:

  1. Prologue
  2. The Song of the Platform
  3. The Song of the Camp
  4. The Song of the Swing
  5. The Song of the Possibility of Survival
  6. The Song of the Death of Lili Tofler
  7. The Song of S.S. Corporal Stark
  8. The Song of the Black Wall
  9. The Song of Phenol
  10. The Song of the Bunker Block
  11. The Song of Cyklon B
  12. The Song of the Fire Ovens
  13. Epilogue

The text is sung and recited by several different voices (4 is a good number, with some volunteers from the audience joining in the Epilogue), and accompanied by a string quartet. A conductor is also required. Although there is very little acting, a director is nonetheless needed, as well as technical personnel for the stage, lighting and sound projection. The string quartet should be behind, at a distance from, and if possible on a higher level than the singers.

The music consists of thirteen sections, in which appear texts adapted from each of the eleven "songs" of the play, preceded by an instrumental prologue and followed by a choral epilogue employing the final speech of Song 11 (Song of the Fire Ovens).

The structure of Weiss' play is analogous to that of Dante's "Paradiso". The music attempts to develop this analogy: Just as Dante's poem describes an ascent through nine circling heavens, each of which rotates at a speed greater than that of its lower neighbor, so too the music for each song moves in a tempo slightly faster than that of the preceding section, finally arriving in the epilogue at the "primum mobile", where time itself is frozen and immutable.

The musicians inhabit such a lofty sphere, removed from the terrestrial level on which the events of the past are described. They are indifferent to the action. Their music is contradictory. Sometimes abstract, sometimes evoking familiar themes and styles, it remains distant and formal.

References to classical and popular traditions recur periodically. The "Song of Lili Tofler" is a set of variations on the traditional German song (already used by Schiller) "Die Gedanken Sind Frei", similar to Schubert's treatment of "Die Forelle". The celebrated song "Die Mohrsoldaten" accompanies the passionate apology of S.S. Sergeant Stark. Fragments of "Die Fledermaus" appear in the "Song of the Black Wall". The "Song of the Bunker" contains echoes of the ballad "I'm Goin' Down the Road Feelin' Bad".

As we watch this play, as we listen to this music, we become aware that we dwell in a comfortable paradise, spectators to another time, another place. The text is unsingable, yet it is sung. Nothing is as it should be. The music is "inappropriate": It does not accompany or reinforce the text, it is in conflict with it. This conflict, which becomes progressively more acute throughout the play, has the function of eliminiating the mythical distance that separates us, safe and satisfied observers, from the historical event.

Frederic Rzewski (November, 1988)

2011-01-26, Christian Mondrup, Werner Icking Music Archive