Monday, October 14, 2013

Mussorgsky - Songs And Dances Of Death

Of the Russian composers that made up The Five in the 19th century, Modest Mussorgsky may have had the most natural talent of them all.  He began piano lessons with his mother at the age of six and made such rapid progress that by ten was performing for family and friends. His first composition was published when he was twelve years old.

Although his musical talent was obvious, Mussorgsky entered the Cadet School Of The Guards when he was thirteen to continue the family tradition of military service.  He continued his study of music while at the school and his natural abilities as a pianist were in large demand. When Mussorgsky was seventeen he met Borodin and struck up a friendship, and he soon met Balakirev and began to study with him. Soon after that, Mussorgsky resigned his military commission.

He learned much from Balakirev, but after a time Mussorgsky set out on his own. His family was well-off financially and Mussorgsky had no money worries until the Emancipation Of The Serfs in 1861 which caused Mussorgsky's family sufficient economic hardship that he could no longer rely on  them for support. He took a minor civil service job to help make ends meet. Due to chronic alcoholism, he composed erratically and failed to finish many compositions. His life continued its downward spiral, although he did manage to finish his masterpiece Boris Godunov and some other compositions. He lost his civil service job in 1880 and was reduced to living on the charity of friends until he died in 1881 of alcoholism at the age of 42.

Mussorgsky wrote the song cycle Songs And Dances Of  Death in 1875-1877 to poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov who was distantly related to Mussorgsky. That Mussorgsky was quite taken with the poet and his works is expressed in a letter:
After Pushkin and Lermontov I have not encountered what I have in Kutuzov... Sincerity leaps from almost everything in Kutuzov, almost everywhere you scent the freshness of a fine warm morning, together with a matchless inborn technique... And how he is drawn to the people, history!
Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov
Obviously Mussorgsky was commenting on the power of Kutuzov's poetry to evoke images and feelings, in this particular case the images and feelings concerning death.

The four songs all deal with the figure of death and how death claims its victims in ways all too familiar to people in 19th century Russia. There are versions of the songs for voice and orchestra by Glazunov/ Rimsky-Korsakov and others, the latest being by Dmitri Shostakovich. But  the songs were originally written for piano and voice, with the piano doing much more than simply accompanying the singer. Singer and piano combine in some of the most powerful songs ever written. As I do not understand Russian,  I can only approximate the full effect of these songs in the original language.  But I am enough of a musician to understand some of the musical power and drama Mussorgsky put into these songs. Music itself is a language, and Mussorgsky expresses much in these songs written for the two instruments he understood very well; the piano and human voice.  I want to thank Sergy Rybin for extending his kind permission to include his translation of the Russian texts.

Lullaby -  Mussorgsky paints a picture of death claiming a sick child. The poet sets the scene, death enters and a short dialog between the child's mother and death begins. I have bracketed indications of which entity is speaking for clarification - 

[Poet] - A child is groaning...  A candle, burning out,
Dimly flickers onto surroundings.
The whole night, rocking the cradle,
A mother has not dozed away with sleep.
Early-early in the morning, carefully, on the door
Compassionate Death -- Knock!
The mother shuddered, looked back with worry...
[Death] - "Don't get frightened, my dear!
Pale morning already looks in the window...
With crying, anguishing and loving
You have tired yourself, have a little nap,
I'll sit instead of you.
You've failed to pacify the child.
I'll sing sweeter than you" --
[Mother]  - "Quiet! My child rushes and struggles,
Tormenting my soul!"
[Death]  - "Well, with me he'll soon be appeased.
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby." --
[Mother]  - "The cheeks are fading, the breath in weakening...
Be quiet, I beg you!" --
[Death]  - "That's a good sign, the suffering will quieten,
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby." --
[Mother]  - "Be gone, you damned thing!
With your tenderness you'll kill my joy!" --
[Death]  - "No, a peaceful sleep I'll conjure up for the baby.
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby." --
[Mother]  - "Have pity, wait at least for a moment
with finishing your awful song!" --
[Death]  - "Look, he fell asleep with my quiet singing.
Lullaby, lullaby, lullaby."
translation © Sergy Rybin

Serenade -  
Magical languor, blue night,
Trembling darkness of spring.
The sick girl takes in, with her head dropped,
The whisper of the night's silence.
Sleep does not close her shining eyes,
Life beckons towards pleasures,
Meanwhile under the window in the midnight silence
Death sings a serenade:
"In the gloom of captivity, severe and stifling,
Your youth is fading away;
A mysterious knight, with magic powers
I'll free you up.
Stand up, look at yourself: with beauty
Your translucent face is shining,
Your cheeks are rosy, with a wavy plait
Your figure is entwined, like with a cloud.
The blue radiance of your piercing eyes
Is brighter than skies and fire.  
Your breath flutters with the midday heat ...
You have seduced me.
Your hearing is captured with my serenade,
Your voice called for a knight,
The knight has come for the ultimate reward;
The hour of ecstasy has arrived. 
Your body is tender, your trembling is ravishing...
Oh, I'll suffocate you
in my strong embraces: listen to my seductive
chatter! ... be silent!... You are mine!"
translation © Sergy Rybin

Trepak -  
Forest and glades, no one is around.
A snow-storm is crying and groaning,
It feels as in the gloom of the night
The Evil One is burying someone;
Hush, it is so! In the darkness
Death is hugging and caressing an old man,
With the drunkard She is dancing a trepak,
While singing a song into his ear:
"Oh, my little wretched man,
Got drunk, stumbled along the road,
But the witch-blizzard has risen furiously,
And driven you from the glade into the dense forest.
Tortured with anguish and need,
Lie down, curl up and fall asleep, my dear!
I'll warm you up with snow, my darling,
And stir up a great game around you.
Shake up the bed, you blizzard-swan!
Hey, get going, start chanting, you weather
A fairytale, that could last all night,
So that the drunkard could fall asleep soundly!
Hey you, forests, skies and clouds,
Gloom, wind and fleeting snow,
Wreathe into a shroud, snowy and fluffy;
With it I'll cover our old man, like a baby...
Sleep, my little friend, happy wretch,
The summer has come and blossomed!
Above the fields the sun is laughing and sickles roam,
The song hovers around; the doves are flying about..."
translation © Sergy Rybin

The Field Marshal - 
The battle is thundering, the armor is shining,
Copper cannons are roaring,
The troops are running, the horses are rushing
And red rivers are flowing.
The midday is blazing -- people are fighting,
The sun is declining -- the fight is stronger,
The sunset is fading away -- but the enemies
Are still battling more fierce and hateful.
And night has fallen on the battlefield.
The armies have parted in the darkness...
Everything has fallen quiet, and in the night's mist
The groans have risen to the heavens.
Then, illuminated by moonlight,
On her battle horse,
Shining with the whiteness of her bones,
Appeared Death; and in the silence,
Taking in moans and prayers,
Full of proud satisfaction,
Like a field marshal she circled around
The place of battle,
And having ridden to the top on the hill,
looked around, stopped, smiled....
And above the battlefield
Roared her fateful voice:
"The battle is finished! I won over everyone!
You all submitted before me, soldiers! 
Life has made you quarrel, I have reconciled you!
Stand up as one for the parade, corpses!
Pass in front of me in a pompous march,
I want to count my troops;
Then deposit your bones into the earth,
It is sweet to rest from life in the ground!
Year after year will pass,
And even the memory of you will disappear.
I will not forget and loudly above you
Will hold a feast at the midnight hour!
With a heavy dance I'll trample
The raw earth, so that the realm of the grave
Your bones will never be able to leave,
So that you'll never rise from the ground! "
translation © Sergy Rybin


  1. Do you know where I could find the scores of the Glazunov/Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrations? Thanks, Ilias K.

  2. The Glazunov orchestration of the Lullaby (Berceuse) is available at:
    A quick internet search gave no immediate hits for the other orchestrations by Rimsky-Korsakov. The Shostakovich orchestrations however, are readily available, also at Sheet Music plus.