For Mussorgsky, the mid-1870s were a time when he meditated on death. A death that mercilessly took several of his friends and left him with unhealing wounds. Under this impression, the cycle “Without Sun” based on the poems of Golenishchev-Kutuzov and the vocal ballad “Forgotten” inspired by Vereshchagin’s painting of the same name were created. In 1875 Mussorgsky turned directly to this terrible theme: he began writing a cycle for voice and piano, Songs and Dances of Death. The lyrics are by the very same Arseniy Arkadyevich Golenishchev-Kutuzov, a younger friend of the composer, who later became a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, with whom Mussorgsky shared quarters from 1873 to 1875, until the poet’s marriage.
On 20 April 1875, in one of his letters, the composer announced, “Count Kutuzov and I are currently working on the Danse macabre – two of the scenes are already finished, the third is on its way, and after it – the fourth!”.
Originally, Mussorgsky intended to create more songs dedicated to death. But after Golenishchev-Kutuzov got married in 1876, the friendship between the two broke down, much to the composer’s chagrin. The four pieces remain,the first of them, Lullaby, according to the notes of the autograph was completed on 14th April. It was dedicated to the famous singer Anna Yakovleva Vorobyova – Petrova. The second part – Serenade – was completed on 11 May and is dedicated to Glinka’s sister, Lyudmila Ivanova Shestakova. The autograph of the third part – Trepak – has no date, but according to Vladimir Stasov’s testimony, that song was the first one written – as early as 17 February. It is dedicated to the great Russian bass Osip Afanasievich Petrov. Two years passed and the composer completed the cycle with another part – The Field Marshal, which was written in Tsarskoe Selo on 5 June 1877. One of the fragments of the autograph bears a dedication to the author of the text. In its final version, the cycle was given the title Songs and Dances of Death. It was published in Rimsky-Korsakov’s edition only after Mussorgsky’s demise.
The vocal cycle Songs and Dances of Death is a true masterpiece of the chamber genre. Mussorgsky put into it all his love for people and all the power of his protest against human grief and suffering. The cycle is usually performed by bass or bass-baritone accompanied by piano, but there have been some ‘ladylike’ interpretations – for example that by Galina Vishnevskaya. Each of the four songs – “Lullaby”, “Serenade”, “Trepak” and “The Field Marshal “ – depicts the death of a particular artistic character in a poetic way. In the first song it is a child, in the second – a girl, in the third – a drunk, and in the fourth – a soldier. Mussorgsky loathed the death that took many of his friends. He called it an “executioner” and a “talentless fool” who slaughters without thinking whom it takes. And so Death became the central idea of his vocal cycle. But this idea is incarnated in a very peculiar way. The Russian composer Georgy Sviridov writes particularly insightfully about that: ‘Death in Mussorgsky is neither good nor evil. It is an element, like life itself. There is no evil in it – on the contrary, it brings sleep, peace, deliverance from suffering. In this death there is no social element whatsoever: a child, a drunken man, a soldier or a young girl – all are equals before it. Death is a blessing; it is the element of the night, opposed to the life of the day – active and vigorous. A child passes away at night, but death is not terrible to it, because it assumes the form of its milk-mother, who lulls it to sleep and delivers it from suffering. Death presents itself to the damsel dying of fever in the form of a handsome young knight who sings her a love serenade… She dies in his arms, filled with spring longing and amorous trembling…”
Trepak is the third part of the cycle, it draws the picture of the peasant freezing under the howl of a fierce blizzard. The beginning of the refrain Dies Irae, a traditional symbol of death, appears here repeatedly. And the final movement, The Field Marshal, is an unfolding picture of a battlefield over which Death once again holds sway. With a triumphant monologue to the rhythm of a powerful ceremonial march, the Death-Field Marshal prowls the battlefield. This is the climax and conclusion of the entire cycle.
In the second half of the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich made an orchestral edition of Songs and Dances of Death, and in this form the cycle was first performed in 1962 in the city of Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod).