To Be or Not To Be: Music About Death

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


To live a full life, most people believe, is to live in a time free of sadness or decay. Much like the famous monologue in “Hamlet” when the young prince finds himself asking whether the pain of living is better than the emptiness of death, most people throughout the course of human history have contemplated what it really means to live and to die. Shakespeare used the recurring theme throughout his play; decay of a body, of trust, of a kingdom, to suggest that change and loss are a natural part of the human experience. Composers, like most artists, tend to have a fascination with death and what comes after it. In this article, we will discuss multiple morbid compositions including “Erlkonig,” by Schubert, “Ode to Death” by Holst, “Songs and Dances of Death” by Mussorgsky, and “Danse Macabre” by Saint Saens.

“Erlkonig” (1815)

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian teacher and composer who landed right in between the Romantic and Classical Eras. He was most famous for his lieder and chamber music. The “Erlkonig” was written in 1815 and is based on the monster from the poem “Erlkonig” by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. The Erlkonig is an apparition who collects souls as they pass on to the afterlife. In this ballad, the Erlkonig has selected a victim, a sickly young boy, and is attempting to take him from his father’s embrace (on horseback). Constant driving sixteenth notes throughout the work represent the horse’s hurried pace. The child notices he is under attack and attempts to get his father’s attention with increasing urgency. His father, presumably in a rush to get the child to a doctor, ignores him and attempts to sound reassuring, until it is too late. The Erlkonig has an inviting voice that calls sweetly to the child as he approaches the horse. The piece is performed by one vocalist (presumably a baritone) who must express all three characters in the work; the father, the son, and the Erlkonig.

“Ode to Death” (1919)

 Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was an English composer from the Romantic Era. He was best known for his composition “The Planets” and his contributions to vocal repertoire. “Ode to Death” is a single-movement piece that includes parts for a mixed chorus and orchestra. This haunting composition begins with peaceful ascending chords in the chorus and an emphasis on the flute. Suddenly the strings enter with rushing figures and a slight increase the tempo. One imagines this is the moment the gates to Heaven are in sight. The chorus at this time is much louder; triumphant. Brass instruments enter and match the excitement of the strings. And then there is a calm. String instruments pull the melody along gently and the chorus’ last chord fades away into silence.

“Songs and Dances of Death” (1875-1877)

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a Russian composer who was most famous for his work “Pictures at an Exhibition” (1874) and his opera “Boris Godunov.” Mussorgsky was part of the “Mighty Five,” a Russian school of music who aimed to revive Russian nationalism through musical compositions. “Songs and Dances of Death” is a four-movement work written for solo voice and piano. The first movement, “Lullaby,” is mournful and slow. The vocalist sings sweeping phrases over gentle quarter notes from the piano. In the second movement, “Serenade,” the tempo picks up slightly, accompanied by eerie ascending ornaments in the piano part. “Trepak,” the third movement, is dance-like chaos; the piano plays downwardly rushing figures while the vocalist sings angrily. The work ends with the fourth and most exciting movement, the “Field Marshal.” In this final portion of the music, repetitive chords in the piano part imitate tolling bells while the soloist resembles a frustrated child fighting the urge to sleep.

“Danse Macabre” (1874)

Camille Saint Saens was a French composer in the 19th century best known for his symphonic poems and the opera “Samson et Dalila.” In addition to composing, Saint Saens was also a talented pianist, organist, and writer. “Danse Macabre” is a single-movement work in the key of G minor. It was first performed in 1874 and dedicated to a Madame C. Montaigne Remaury. In this work, Saint Saens paints a picture of spirits celebrating in a graveyard. The work begins with a commanding violin solo. This is the announcement to the spirits that it is time to come out. The other strings and woodwinds play light eighth note patterns fluttering around like debris and ashes throughout the piece. Brass and percussion instruments’ low steady chords represent the nighttime; present but unobtrusive. At the end of the movement, the violin solo returns to playfully say goodbye as the sun begins to rise.



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