Songs and Dances of Death
Songs and Dances of Death (Russian: Песни и пляски смерти, Pesni i plyaski smerti) is a song cycle for voice (usually bass or bass-baritone) and piano by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, written in the mid-1870s, to poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, a relative of the composer.
Each song deals with death in a poetic manner although the depictions are realistic in that they reflect experiences not uncommon in 19th century Russia: child death, death in youth, drunken misadventure and war.
The song cycle is considered Mussorgsky's masterpiece in the genre.
The individual song titles and dates of composition are as follows:
- A mother cradles her sick infant, who grows more feverish. Death appears, disguised as a babysitter, and rocks the infant to eternal sleep.
- The figure of Death waits outside the window of a dying woman, in the manner of a wooing lover.
- A drunken peasant stumbles outside into the snow and becomes caught in a blizzard. As he freezes to death, he dreams of summer fields.
- The figure of Death is depicted as an officer commanding the troops after a dreadful battle. She asserts her enduring remembrance of them all.
Original libretto as well as Cyrillic option, and English/French translation found here
The Songs and Dances of Death have been recorded by numerous vocalists, including Vladimir Rosing, George London, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Boris Christoff, Kim Borg, Martti Talvela, Matti Salminen, Anatoly Kotcherga, Paata Burchuladze, Aage Haugland, Galina Vishnevskaya, Brigitte Fassbaender, Anja Silja and Yevgeny Nesterenko.
Versions by other hands
The songs were first orchestrated by Glazunov (Nos. 1 and 3) and Rimsky-Korsakov (Nos. 2 and 4) shortly after Mussorgsky's death. They were published in 1882. Mussorgsky had intended to orchestrate the cycle himself but never realised the ambition. In the Glazunov/Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, 'Trepak' is first.
- 1962, Dmitriy Shostakovich
Shostakovich orchestrated the whole cycle for the dedicatee, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. Seven years later, noting that he wanted to continue Mussorgsky's "too short" set of songs, he wrote his Fourteenth Symphony for soprano, bass and chamber orchestra, adding to the musical gallery of death's appearances. The Shostakovich orchestration had a substantial influence on many of his later works, and has since been adapted for bass and baritone voices.
- 1983, Edison Denisov
- 1984, Kalevi Aho
- 1994, Ramon Lazkano (premiered by Dmitri Hvorostovsky)
- 2007, Aleksandr Raskatov
- 2012, Peter Breiner in a version for orchestra only, recorded by him and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra on Naxos.
- Volkov, Solomon, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (New York: The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1995), 106.