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Music History

Death in Human Form

October 31, 2019
Death and the Maiden by Egon Schiele

Death inspires outlandish stories and tall tales. Before Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale on November 24, we look at the manifestation of death at different times in different cultures. The three pieces below show death in human form, from victor on the battlefield to a gentle tempter to a capricious character. All three were inspired by works of literature that tell dark, supernatural stories.

Schubert: Quartet in D minor for Strings, D. 810, “Death and the Maiden”

The idea behind Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet goes back hundreds of years. The “Death and the Maiden” theme (the gruesome figure of death haunting a beautiful maiden) began in the Renaissance and enjoyed a revival during the Romantic period. Schubert first wrote a song based on a poem by Matthias Claudius depicting a short conversation between the maiden and death. Schubert later took death’s theme from the song and made it the subject of this set of variations—the second movement of his D minor quartet. The repeating rhythm gives the music a sense of inevitability.

Mussorgsky: Pesni i plyaski smerti (Songs and Dances of Death) for Voice and Piano

The last of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death is a dramatic depiction of the aftermath of a bloody battle. Death appears as a field marshal to survey his troops, uniting fallen soldiers on both sides. The poem was written by the composer’s relative and roommate, Count Arseny Golenishchev-Kutuzov, and Mussorgsky set it in his unembellished, declamatory style. It has been orchestrated many times, including by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich.

Bermel: Death with Interruptions for Piano, Violin, and Cello

Bermel writes: “Death with Interruptions (2014) is a piano trio, written in variation form. The title, which comes from the novel by the Portuguese writer José Saramago, describes the chaos that ensues when one day people mysteriously stop dying. Soon afterwards Death herself enters the narrative and falls madly in love with a cellist. I was intrigued by Saramago's portrait of death as a character, viewed through a multitude of prisms: the mysterious, the impulsive, the ridiculous, and the dispassionate.”

Article by Laura Keller, Editorial Manager.