From Modest Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death to Oliver Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, here are ten great classical pieces about death and the end of this world. They may or may not provide you comfort.
1. Songs and Dances of Death, by Modest Mussorgsky
A song cycle for voice (usually bass or bass-baritone) and piano, Modest Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death is a setting of four poems by Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov. The four sections each describe a different type of death: “Lullaby” (the death of a child in his mother’s arms); “Serenade” (the death of a young woman); “Trepak” (the death of a drunken man); “The Field Marshall” (the death of men in war). The cycle was orchestrated later by Mussorgsky’s friends Alexander Glazunov and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and again later by Dmitri Shostakovich, among others. The text of the poems may be found here.
2. The Masque of the Red Death, by André Caplet
André Caplet was a contemporary and friend of Claude Debussy. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story about the plague, Caplet composed this chilling piece for string orchestra (later arranged for string quartet and harp). When the red-robed figure “knocks” near the piece’s end, you may well jump out of your seat!
3. Songs on the Death of Children, by Gustav Mahler
Between 1901 and 1904, Gustav Mahler set to music five of the 428 poems that Friedrich Rückert had written in the aftermath of the death of two of his children from scarlet fever. Mahler began work on Kindertotenlieder, scored for solo voice and orchestra, after he had been seriously ill with the flu, and he continued working on the project as he worried about the health of his daughter, Maria, who appeared at first to be stillborn. Tragically, little Maria would die at the age of four, after Mahler had finished Kindertotenlieder. Lyrics can be found here.
4. Masonic Funeral Music, by W.A. Mozart
Though Wolfgang Mozart was a devout Roman Catholic, he was also a devoted Freemason—and he saw no contradiction in being both. He wrote the powerful, brief Masonic Funeral Music, scored for strings and woodwind instruments (including three basset horns, two oboes, two horns, a clarinet, and a contrabassoon), for two friends of his lodge who died in 1785.
5. Danse Macabre, by Camille Saint-Saëns
The dance of death was a medieval notion, in which death would come to us like a terrifying lover, ready to embrace us and take our souls to the next world. Perhaps the best-known classical piece using this model is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.
6. Death and Transfiguration, by Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss wrote the tone poem for orchestra Tod und Verklärung in 1888-1889. Strauss wrote that the music describes “the dying hours of a man who had striven towards the highest idealistic aims, maybe indeed those of an artist.” And on his deathbed, the composer offered this: “Dying is exactly as I composed it sixty years ago in Tod und Verklärung.”
7. Valse Triste, by Jean Sibelius
In 1903, Sibelius composed six pieces as the incidental music for the play Kuolema (Death), written by his brother-in-law, Arvid Järnefelt. He revised one piece to become the popular Valse Triste (Sad Waltz).
8. Pavane for a Dead Princess, by Maurice Ravel
Originally for solo piano, Ravel later orchestrated this gentle piece for strings and winds. Ravel wrote that the music was “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court.”
9. The Death of Aase, by Edvard Grieg
Written in 1875, The Death of Aase is one of the movements of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s music for Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.
10. Quartet for the End of Time, by Oliver Messiaen
Oliver Messiaen wrote this piece, scored for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, in 1940 when he was being held as a prisoner of war by the Nazis. Based on a passage from the Book of Revelation, the work is divided into eight movements. It was premiere by Messiaen and three fellow prisoners, who played broken-down instruments in the rain, for an audience made up of their fellow inmates and their German guards. “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” recalled Messiaen. The camp newsletter reported afterwards: “It was our good fortune to have witnessed in this camp the first performance of a masterpiece.”
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