Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881) was a Russian
composer, one of the group known as "The Five". He was
an innovator of Russian music in the romantic period.
He strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical
identity, often in deliberate defiance of the
established conventions of Western music. Many of his
works were inspired by Russian history, Russian
folklore, and other national themes. Such works include
the opera Boris Godunov, the orchestral tone poem Night
on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an
Mussorgsky's last cycle Songs and Dances of Death was
composed in 1877. The texts were by the amateur poet
and dramatist Count Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov
(1848-1913). The first setting, "Cradle Song," portrays
a fearful mother's vigil over her dying child. Her
dialogue with Death is poignant, but realized with
utmost simplicity. We hear Death's insidious refrain
"Hush-a-by, hush-a-by" four times, while the piano
suggests the rocking of the cradle. Finally, Death
announces "Calm your fear and despair! See, through the
window peeps the pale morrow." False reassurance
conceals his real intention -- Death's lullaby calls
the child unto himself, with the words "See, there he
slumbers...my song stilled his pain."
The next song "Serenade" describes a sickly young woman
before whom Death appears as a gallant suitor. As the
critic Montagu-Nathan writes, "This sinister cavalier
prosecutes a brief and horrible courtship...Flattering
utterances are but a veil that will not long obscure
the end." When at the close the melody fades into
silence, Death casts aside his disguise with a
triumphant cry of "Be still...you are mine!"
In No. 3, "Trepak," the accompaniment derives from the
ancient Dies irae plainchant, heard in Liszt's
Totentanz and the Symphonie Fantastique of Berlioz,
both of which Mussorgsky had heard in St. Petersburg.
The accompaniment becomes the theme of the
nationalistic "Trepak" danced by Death himself. In a
snow-gripped forest, Death meets a drunken peasant, to
whom he sings "a song fair and pleasant" before bidding
him rest until daybreak.
The last song "The Field-Marshal" was probably inspired
by Glinka's setting Midnight Review. Written two years
after the others, Death is portrayed here as a ghostly
commander, now proud in victory, riding through scenes
of death and devastation on the battlefield. He summons
his loyal victims to form up in parade and pass before
him in ghostly review. Death's inexorable march theme
quotes the Polish patriotic song "Z dymen pozarow." The
original version included a remarkable chord cluster
four measures from the close, which does not appear in
Rimsky-Korsakov's edition, issued after Mussorgsky's
own death in 1881.
Although originally created for Accompanied Voice, I
created this Arrangement of the "Serenade" from "Songs
& Dances of Death" (IMM 64 No. 2) for Viola & Piano .