A number of dances of death from southern Germany and Switzerland are collectively called Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz: "Oberdeutscher" because the text is in High German — as opposed to the Low German dances of death in Lübeck, Tallinn and Berlin — and "vierzeiliger" because each verse consists of 4 lines — as opposed to the 8-lined der doten dantz mit figuren.
The oldest of these texts, CPG 314(1) (picture to the left), shows how the German text is a translation from Latin. In this old manuscript Death doesn't appear, and the text only consists of the complaints of the dying people. It is easy to see the inspiration from the Vado Mori-literature.
The 24 dancers introduce themselves: »I was a holy pope […]«, »I have, as king […]«, etc., lament their fate, and let the next participant take over.
In all the other (later) versions of Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz, speeches have been added for Death, but the resulting dialogue is only ostensibly a dialogue: Death greets the humans energetically, vivaciously, ironically - even humorously - while the humans ignore Death's words, introduce themselves to the reader, »I was a holy pope […]«, »I have, as king […]«, etc., whereupon they go on lamenting. In fact the German word "Wechselrede" is more precise: Death and the dying take turns speaking.
This is most evident at the end of the dance, where the mother ignores Death and addresses her son: »Oh child, I would have saved you;«, while the child in turn also ignores Death and calls for his mother: »Oh woe, my dear mother […] How can you leave me thus?«
In other dances of death, like the ones in Lübeck and Berlin, the dying might address Death directly and implore for respite, but this never happens in Oberdeutscher vierzeiliger Totentanz — precisely because the humans' speeches were written many years before Death appeared on the scene.
Strictly speaking Death still doesn't appear anywhere. What we have here is a "real totentanz", where a row of dead people drag the living away. Read more about Dance of Death or Line of the Dead.
The most famous dance in this family is Death from Basel. There were 2 dances in Basel and both had increased the number of dancers from 24 to 39. In Kleinbasel the text is still familiar, but the famous dance in GroßBasel had been changed so thoroughly through repair and renovations that it can only be partly recognized.
We know the text from a number of sources. To the right is a family tree where Wilhelm Fehse traces the evolution of the texts.
Fehse's article, Der Oberdeutsche Vierzeilige Totentanztext in Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie, vol. 40 page 67 ff, is far better than Massmann's. Massmann included an extra manuscript, M4, without realizing that this in reality was M1 and M2, that had been mixed together and heavily edited by another professor named Docen.
Fehse's article is half a century newer, he includes Berol 19, which Massmann didn't know about, and he's generally more meticulous and sharp-witted than Massmann.
Footnotes: (1) (2) (3) (4)