Join me and pianist Natalia Skomorokhova for this beautiful, rarely-performed cycle of four songs with poetry by Arseny Arkad'yevich Golenischev-Kutuzov. The poems depict death acting in various scenes of life: a child, a maiden, a drunk, and as a general in the battlefield and the cycle is considered to be a masterpiece of Russian art song. While the topic could be considered morbid, the beauty of the music and poetry are cathartic.
The recital is part of Natalia's Doctor of Musical Arts degree. Also on the program is Brahms Piano quartet No.3, Op.60 in C-minor. Other artists involved are:
Ori Solomon- violin
Daniel Dennis- cello
Hyperion records has a wonderful commentary by Leonid Gakkel about The Songs and Dances of Death on their website that I thought I'd include:
In 1875, Mussorgsky started writing the song cycle Songs and dances of death; the composer was thirty-six years old, with six years of life remaining, and ‘She’—for this was how the composer referred to death in his letters—filled his thoughts. This theme had already appeared in Night on Bare Mountain, but in the 1870s it found new form in the idea for a long work for voice and piano based on the poems of Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, with whom Mussorgsky had close artistic and personal ties. The critic Vladimir Stasov helped with the broader plan of the cycle: it was suggested to have twelve pieces showing the deaths of people of various ages and social classes, but this was whittled down to four, which together make up the greatest death poem in the Russian vocal music tradition, and not only in it alone.
‘The bumbling fool of death mows relentlessly, without stopping to think whether her accursed visit is really needed,’ Mussorgsky wrote in one of his letters, without a hint of humility. Quite the reverse, he peruses death unflinchingly, and that is what makes the Songs and dances of death cycle so penetrating and so closely connected to Russian literature (in particular Dostoevsky), where a deathly veracity is also to be found.
Songs and dances of death opens with “Lullaby”: a mother is trying to comfort her sick child, Death comes to help her, singing the soothing refrain of ‘Bayushki, bayu, bayu’. She grins tenderly and nothing is as deeply perturbing as the gentle singing of Death the Consoler. “Serenade”, the second song, is performed on behalf of Death the Beau: here everything is a mask, a deception, and only the last commanding cry of ‘You are mine!’ is true.
In “Trepak” the music and poetry move from the four walls of the home to a desolate snowswept landscape: in the forest a drunken peasant is freezing. Death twirls him in a folk dance, the trepak, which is replaced by the sweet vision of a warm summer, as happens in the final moments of those freezing to death. It is over, and only the muffled piano is left repeating the trepak rhythm.
Two years later, Mussorgsky added the final and longest piece to the cycle: “The Field Marshal”. The author inserted the horrifying direction: Vivo—alla Guerra(Lively—in a martial spirit). Th ere follows the image of a battle, then a stupor takes hold: the living are lying with the dead, and finally Field-Marshal-Death rides in on a skeleton horse. Here, Mussorgsky uses the anthem of the Polish insurgents at the time, Z dymem pożarów. This is tragic beyond belief: it is as though we are seeing Poland as it became during the Second World War, dotted with Nazi extermination camps. In a letter to Golenishtchev-Kutuzov, the composer wrote of “The Field Marshal”: ‘It is death, coldly, passionately in love with death, and delighting in death.’ And he concluded: ‘Yes, it is after war!’ Death is the victor—in the fates of individuals and the fates of warring peoples alike, and no matter what dialogue it engages in with those it encounters.
In 1962, Shostakovich orchestrated this cycle. The score contains much that is remarkable: the strings in “Lullaby”, the flute and harp in “Trepak”, the percussion in “Field Marshal”. But most important of all is that in 1969 Songs and dances of death was reborn in Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony (he said that Mussorgsky should have included more pieces in the cycle). In Symphony No 14 there are eleven movements and their principal theme is death. It served as a moral cleansing for the Russian people, who had overcome the hardships of the past. These works—Mussorgsky’s song cycle and Shostakovich’s Symphony that followed in its footsteps—have come to hold great importance for Russians today, for we Russians require new eff orts to preserve our country’s humanistic traditions.