Songs and Dances of Death : Work information

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
Graham Johnson (Piano), Ewa Podles (Contralto)

This work

Work name
Songs and Dances of Death
Work number
1875-01-01 02:01:00

This recording

Forlane CI
Ivan Pastor
Jean-Marc Laisne
Recording date

Track listing

  • Lullaby 5:02 min
  • Serenade 4:33 min
  • Trepak 4:41 min
  • The Field Marshall 5:41 min


In June 1873, Mussorgsky formed a close friendship with the poet Count Arseny Golenishchev-Kutzov, a distant relative. They shared lodgings and, in 1875, Mussorgsky began a song-cycle on his texts called Pesni I plyaski smerti (Songs and Dances of Death). Although Mussorgsky was at the height of his powers, the recent critical panning of his opera, Boris Godunov, left the composer feeling betrayed and isolated, and his choice of these sombre texts perhaps reflects his mood.

3 of the songs were penned in 1875 while the fourth was added in 1877. More songs mentioned in Golenishchev-Kutzov's papers were planned for the cycle, but were never realised. Written for piano and voice, Shostakovich later orchestrated the songs, though many still prefer the stark bleakness of Mussorgsky's original.

The Composers

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

Mussorgsky was taught the piano from an early age by his mother, and at the age of nine played a concerto by Field to an audience in his parents’ house. In 1852 he entered the Guards’ Cadet School in St. Petersburg. He tried to write an opera in 1856, even though he had not studied harmony or composition. He joined the Guards in the same year. In 1857 he met  Dargomïzhsky and Cui, and through them Balakirev and Stasov. This was the beginning of The ‘Big Five’, or ‘Mighty Handful’, consisting of Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Mussorgsky persuaded Balakirev to give him lessons, and he composed some songs and piano sonatas.

In 1858 he resigned his commission, and the next year, after an inspirational visit to Moscow, his works began to be performed in public. But he remained uneasy about his life, and started to write music which he then abandoned. He worked in the Ministry of Communications and lived in a commune with five other young men. In 1865 his mother died and he developed dipsomania. Two years later he lost his job. Mussorgsky spent the summer of that year at his brother’s house, where his compositions included his first important orchestral work, St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain.

Early in 1869 Mussorgsky reentered government service and completed the original version of the opera Boris Godunov. After some difficulty and much re-writing, it was eventually staged in February 1874. Despite an increasing dependence on alcohol, which reduced his ability to concentrate on composing, he continued to write such music as Pictures at an Exhibition. This was written for the piano and only arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel after Mussorgsky’s death. In 1878, his director at the Ministry allowed him to leave for a three-month concert tour with the contralto Darya Leonova. After he left government service in January 1880, Leonova helped provide him with employment and a home. However, on the 23 February the next year he went to her in a state of despair, rambling about having nothing to live for. He was taken to hospital and found to be suffering from alcoholic epilepsy. He died there a month later, leaving many of his works unfinished.

Related Composers: Cui, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Ravel

-MIDI FILE - Night on the Bare Mountain (11'58'')