From Death Dance by Bernt Notke, end of 15th century (Art Museum of Estonia)
There’s Covid-19 and then there’s the Black Death. The height of the Black Death was between the years of 1347-1351. Estimates for the number of deaths in, during the Black Death, range to 200 million.
A culture of death was established as a result of the Black Death. The Danse Macabre was a visual representation of the immediacy of death. In the murals, death danced with the Pope, kings, merchants, knights, maidens, lords, serfs, children, and clerics. No one was spared, death functioned as the great equalizer. It still does.
From Songs and Dances of Death by Modest Mussorgsky.
There have been several musical settings of the Danse Macabre; the version by Camille Saint-Saëns is the most famous. Other composers such as Gustav Mahler, Franz Liszt, and Dimitri Shostakovich have created music based on the grim reaper.
My favorite setting is Songs and Dances of Death by Modest Mussorgsky. In keeping with the tradition, Mussorgsky sprinkles death across a variety of demographics.
The first song, Lullaby brings us the death of an infant. Death addresses the mother,
- “...You've failed to pacify the child.
- I'll sing sweeter than you..."
Following Lullaby is Serenade. A sick maiden lies awake thinking of life’s pleasures while death sings to her.
- “Meanwhile under the window in the midnight silence
- Death sings a serenade:
- "In the gloom of captivity, severe and stifling,
- Your youth is fading away;
- A mysterious knight, with magic powers
- I'll free you up.”
The third song follows a drunken peasant into the woods where he freezes to death, and then we come to the fourth song which is called The Fieldmarshal. Here, death is portrayed as a general presiding over a vast battlefield of the dead illuminated by moonlight. Death explains,
- “The battle is finished! I won over everyone!
- You all submitted before me, soldiers!
- Life has made you quarrel, I have reconciled you!
- Stand up as one for the parade, corpses!
- Pass in front of me in a pompous march,
- I want to count my troops...”
A Dirge for Two Veterans
Ralph Vaughan Williams has set Whitman’s verse to music.
All four deaths were common not only in 19th Century Russia but in every country, including the United States. We can look to Walt Whitman’s A Dirge for Two Veterans for an American verse similar to the moon-lit procession of Mussorgsky’s Fieldmarshal.
- “THE last sunbeam
- Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,
- On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
- Down a new-made double grave.
- LO, the moon ascending,
- Up from the east the silvery round moon,
- Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
- Immense and silent moon...
- I see a sad procession,
- And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,
- All the channels of the city streets they're flooding,
- As with voices and with tears...”