Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mussorgsky - Mephistopheles' Song Of The Flea

Mussorgsky was given piano lessons in his youth, and despite showing a remarkable gift for music was sent to officer training school to keep up the family tradition of military service. He resigned from the military when he was 20 years old to devote himself to music.  He had been born into a wealthy land-owning family, but after he resigned his military commission and the freeing of the serfs in Russia in 1861, he was forced to take a civil service job to try and make ends meet.

One area of music where Mussorgsky excelled was Russian art songs for voice and piano, as he had a definite talent for setting the Russian language to music. Mussorgsky himself wrote about his artistic aesthetic shortly before his death:
Art is a means of communicating with people, not an aim in itself.  Proceeding from the conviction that human speech is strictly controlled by musical laws, ... the function of art [is] the reproduction in musical sounds, not merely of feelings, but first and foremost of human speech.
Mussorgsky took an extended leave from his civil service job and set off with a vocalist on a concert tour of Russia in the summer of 1879.  It was while on this tour that he wrote The Song Of The Flea or to use its full name Mephistopheles' Song in Auerbach's Cellar. The words for the song were taken from a Russian translation of Part One of Goethe's Faust.  

The song deals with Mephistopheles and Faust entering a cellar where other men are drinking, and Mephistopheles tells a tale of a king that kept a flea at his court and lavished it with ornate clothing and made it a minister at court. The flea soon brought all of its relation to court where all of the royals were bitten and annoyed, but afraid to kill any of the fleas because of the king's fondness for them.

At the end of the tour, Mussorgsky and the vocalist performed the song in a public recital and it was an immediate success. After Mussorgsky's death two years later, the score to the song in Mussorgsky's hand was lost, but luckily one of his friends had copied it out. The song was printed soon after Mussorgsky's death and many orchestrations were made of it. Mussorgsky wrote some 65 songs, and the Song of The Flea is his most well-known.

The Song Of The Flea
There once was a King
who kept a flea.
A flea, a flea!
It was dearer to him than his own son.
A flea!  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! A flea? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! A flea.
The King called the tailor: "Listen you blockhead!
For my dear friend  make a velvet kaftan".
A velvet kaftan?  He-he-he-he-he, velvet.
He-he-he-he-he kaftan, Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, Ha-ha-ha, a velvet kaftan.
So in gold and velvet the flea was dressed,
And enjoyed total freedom in the court! He-he-he-he-he the flea!
Ha-ha-ha, Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha the flea!
The King awarded the flea the rank of a minister and gave it a medal, 
And all his relation got the same, а-hа! And the Queen herself and her ladies-in-waiting
Were disturbed by the fleas ha-ha.
They were afraid to touch them, let alone kill them,
But if one bites us, we'll smash it! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha ha-ha-ha...

The first video is a rendition of the original version for soloist and piano, while the second video is an orchestration of the work by Rimsky-Korsakov


  1. Is here a mistake in the words?
    "The were afraid to touch them, let alone kill them"
    Thank you in advance

  2. I have corrected the text. Thank you for pointing out this mistake.

  3. "luckily on [of] if his friends . . . " typo, I thought you'd like to know. Thanks for this info. I think it would be interesting to include the metaphoric meaning of the song. Richard Fey, San Francisco