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Death and Mortality

I am programming an ambitious concert dealing with the theme of death and mortality - the many ways it has been set by composers. Obviously there are many liturgical settings that are easy enough to find, but I'm also looking for other settings of provocative and reflective poetry on this theme. It will be challenging to find pieces that are respectful, even uplifting; but I think it's an interesting program that can and should be beautiful and moving. Suggestions?
Joseph Young
Hingham, MA
Replies (31): Threaded | Chronological
on April 30, 2012 8:06pm
The Italian madrigal repertoire contains any number of pieces that could find a place in such a program.  Some examples that come immediately to mind are:
Monteverdi, setting of the sestina "Incenerite spoglie, avara tomba" (also known as "Lagrime dell'amante al sepolcro dell'amata") (in 6 sections)
Giaches de Wert, setting of the text "Giunto alla tomba" from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (in 2 sections)
Marenzio, setting of the a more extended version of the same text (in 4 sections)
Scores of all of the above, as well as MIDI files and texts and translations, can be downloaded from my Web site.
There are also numerous madrigals based on texts by Petrarch that deal with death and mortality, such as the settings of the sonnet "Mia benigna fortuna" (with its second section "Crudele, acerba, inesorabil Morte") by Cipriano de Rore, Orlando di Lasso, Wert and Marenzio.
Hope this helps.
Martin Morell
on April 30, 2012 8:47pm
One of the first pieces that comes to my mind is Norman Dello Joio's "Come To Me, My Love" - a setting of Christina Rosetti's poem, "Echo" (Hal Leonard HL00007541).  It is a powerful and expressive setting of yearning to be with a lost love of many years.
Another would be Vaughn Williams setting of "The Turtle Dove" (or any other settings of that text) (Hal Leonard HL5029918).
A third one might be "The Lass from the Low Countree" by J. J. Niles, arr. by J. Purifoy (G. Schirmer 50485697). 
A fourth might be the Irish rebellion ballad "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" by Robert Dwyer Joyce, arranged by Laurie A. Betts (Walton HL08501663 or WSZ101).  It is very intense, and can be performed with harp.
Finally, "The Wreck of the Steamship Ethie', a Canadian folk song arranged by Donald Patriquin (earthsongs S-54b).
And how about any setting of "Scarborough Fair"?
on May 1, 2012 4:05am
Hello Joseph.
Some suggestions
Rest - Ralph Vaughan Williams - setting of Christina Ressetti's poem -  available on CPDL
on May 1, 2012 5:36am
Brahms: Dem dunkeln Schoß der heilgen Erde
[a roughly 3 minute, SATB a cappella part song]
on May 1, 2012 5:50am
Vaughan Williams - Toward The Unknown Region (text Walt Whitman)
Brahms - Nanie (text Schiller)
Howard Goodall - In Memoriam Anne Frank (uses several texts simultaneously, most notably Christina Rossetti's "Remember". There is nothing specific to Anne Frank or WW2 in the text, although the association created by the title makes it particularly powerful (and emotionally difficult) to sing.)
Damien Barbeler - To Rise (text Kahlil Gibran)
Lars Edlund - Nenia (largely wordless - it's an extended elaboration of the opening phrase from Monteverdi's "Lasciate Mi Morire")
on May 1, 2012 6:56am
I recommend Canadian composer James Rolfe's setting of the Whitman poem "Come, Lovely and Soothing Death".  SSAATTBB - self-published.  This is a brilliant work, highly expressive of this powerful text.  You will find several sound files of this work on Rolfe's page at the Canadian Music Centre's website:  You will have to create a log in to access.
Leonard Ratzlaff
on May 1, 2012 6:58am
Three things come to mind
Prelude for Voices, William Schuman's setting of Thomas Wolfe's words from "Look Homeward Angel".
Bach Cantata #106.  Gottes Zeit ist der Allerbeste Zeit
I'm prone to mixing choral music with spoken word (poetry, play excerpts, scripture) to create performance pieces.  As I write this I can't help but recall several moments in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America/Perestroika".  Powerful stuff about living in the face of dying.  Act 5, Scene 3's saying Kaddish for the dying Roy Cohn by Louis prompted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg is intensely layered.  The final scene of Perestroika set at the Bethesda Fountain is a powerful statement of living while dying. 
And, of course, there's the Kaddish itself.  Said in response to a death, it is a prayer that recognizes the "greatness of G-d who conducts the entire universe."
And, Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night" sounds some good counterpoint.
And... better stop now, eh?
Jeremy McLeod
on May 1, 2012 7:06am
"Long Long Trail A-winding" --there's a big lush TTBB setting of this--maybe by Ambassadors of Harmony? (A little on the perky side... but maybe that's useful for auditory leavening?)
"Crossing the Bar" set by Charles Ives, David Conte, Gwyneth Walker, and others
We did this in a women's chorus concert, also "Blow Ye the Trumpet" (Kirke Mechem) and selections from "Cradle of Fire" (Michael Isaacson/Samuel Rosenbaum)
Libby Larsen's "Chanting to Paradise" suite of four Emily Dickinson poems (Bind me, In this short Life, By a departing light, Out of Sight)  Her composer's notes are a poem in themselves:
I second the motion for RWV "Rest"... good one. Rossetti's poem "Dream Land" might also be public domain in SATB setting by Haydn Mulholland?
Brian Holmes "Let Evening Come" (Jane Kenyon poem)
When is the concert? Best wishes!
on May 1, 2012 9:14am
If you want to go outside the concert repertoire, Do Not Go Gentle, a modern shapenote song from the Northern Harmony, is a powerful setting of the dylan Thomas poem.
And if you are interested, two of my compositions may be relevent.
Life Is But a Dream is a sort of dreamy, spiritual fantasia on Row, Row, Row Your Boat. You can hear a recording at
Joe Hill's Will is a round setting Joe Hill's last words before he was executed. Please contact me if you'd like perusal copies.
Here are the lyrics to Joe Hill's Will:
My will is easy to decide
For I have nothig to divide.
My kin don't need to weep and moan
Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.
My body? Oh if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
and let the merry breezes blow
my dust to where some flowers grow
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would soon rise up and grow green again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you,
Joe Hill
on May 1, 2012 10:06am
Hello, Joseph;
I have a piece "Darkness/Light" SATB w/pno, about 3 1/2 mins., fairly easy. The text is a late-life meditation on the recognition of mortality, remembrance of life, and finally the transition into the light. If you're interested, I can send you a pdf of the score and midi audio. My email is
Kelvin McNeal 
on May 1, 2012 7:29pm
Thanks to everyone for your comments and suggestions. I'm taking many of them and ordering perusal copies to see if these pieces are a good fit for our program and singers. Thanks again!!
on May 2, 2012 9:01am
Here's a great early American piece about death.
David's Lamentation by William Billings.
Do the original version as found in the SACRED HARP hymnal.
Nick Page
on May 2, 2012 11:13am
Here are some diverse pieces on the subject I have conducted: "Funeral Sentences" by Henry Purcell SATB, organ, and continuo, Pub. Novello #46 0006 01. "View me Lord, a Work of Thine" from Thoughts and Remembrances by Jackson Berkey SATB divisi or as SSA, piano or orchestra, Pub. SDG Press/Masters Music #SDG 96-111 for SATB. "In Solemn Silence" by Mikhail Ippolitof-Ivanof Arr. Peter J. Wilhousky SATTBB a cappella, Pub. Carl Fischer CM635. "Abide with Me" SATB contralto solo, piano or piano duet or orchestra and "Nearer, My God, to Thee" SATB, piano or piano duet or orchestra from Five Hymns in Popular Style, Op. 54 by John Gardner, Pub. Oxford University Press. Reincarnations, Op. 16 by Samuel Barber: "Mary Hynes," "Anthony O Daly," "The Coolin" SATB a cappella, Pub. G. Schirmer/Hal Leonard #HL50301440, Schirmer #8909, Schirmer #8910. "How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place" from "A German Requiem" by Johannes Brahms SATB piano or orchestra, Pub G. Schirmer/Hal Leonard HL50295550. Carols of Death by William Schuman: "The Last Invocation," The Unknown Region,"To All, To Each" SATB a cappella, Pub. Merion Music/Theodore Presser #342-40011, #342-40012, #342-40013. "Riders in the Sky" by Stan Jones, Arr. Norman Luboff TTBB piano, Pub. Hal Leonard #HL08648800. "Mercy Song" from South Dakota Shadows by Jackson Berkey SATB Divisi piano, electric bass, acoustic guitar, strings, Pub. SDG Press/Masters Music #SDG89-104.
"The Living Song" by Joseph M. Martin SATB Divisi with cello obligato, Pub. Harold Flammer/Shawnee Press #A7282. "Requiem" by Giacomo Puccini STB, organ and viola, Pub. Elkan-Vogel/Theodore Presser #362-03209. "In Memoriam" by John Ness Beck double chorus a cappella, Pub. Beckenhorst Press #BP1637. "Closing Prayer" from Prayers of Cardinal Newman by Norman Dello Joio SATB, Pub. Carl Fischer #CM7321. "The Seasons of Man" by Fisher Tull SATB Divisi and 2 trumpets, Pub. Boosey & Hawkes #OC4B5936.
on May 3, 2012 7:12am
Here are three of my most poignant William Blake settings, on this theme
Ah! Sun-Flower
SATB a cappella 2'10
Wm. Blake
Wistful, poignant Air with slow, limp, soft energy. Subject: Death, time, yearning for release.
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
The Sick Rose
SATB a cappella 1'45
Wm. Blake
Bittersweet slow Madrigal. Subject: Love/death (or death of love).

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
The Fly
SATB a cappella 1'20
Wm. Blake
Witty, playful Madrigal, lively and rhythmic. Subject: Are you Fly or Man?
Little Fly
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush'd away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength & breath:
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
under SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND OF EXPERIENCE section on the page
Contact me off-list if interested, and good luck with the theme!
David Avshalomov
Composer, Singer, Conductor
Santa Monica CA
310-480-9525 cell
on May 3, 2012 10:25am
"It Is Well with My Soul" is a hymn penned by hymnist Horatio Spafford and composed by Philip Bliss.  Great story . . . crosses curriculum . . . integrates the arts.
on May 3, 2012 2:31pm
Hi Joseph!
I have a setting of Thomas Hardy's A Choirmasters Burial. About 5,5 min long for SSATBB with optional divici.
If You are interested then please contact me and I will send You a pdf.
Best regards

The Choirmaster's Burial

Thomas Hardy

He often would ask us That, when he died, After playing so many To their last rest, If out of us any Should here abide, And it would not task us, We would with our lutes Play over him By his grave-brim The psalm he liked best— The one whose sense suits "Mount Ephraim"— And perhaps we should seem To him, in Death's dream, Like the seraphim. As soon as I knew That his spirit was gone I thought this his due, And spoke thereupon. "I think", said the vicar, "A read service quicker Than viols out-of-doors In these frosts and hoars. That old-fashioned way Requires a fine day, And it seems to me It had better not be." Hence, that afternoon, Though never knew he That his wish could not be, To get through it faster They buried the master Without any tune. But 'twas said that, when At the dead of next night The vicar looked out, There struck on his ken Thronged roundabout, Where the frost was graying The headstoned grass, A band all in white Like the saints in church-glass, Singing and playing The ancient stave By the choirmaster's grave. Such the tenor man told When he had grown old.
on May 3, 2012 2:48pm
A couple I don't see posted (maybe I didn't look hard enough):
O Danny Boy (I like the Flummerfelt arrangement, though Grainger's wordless setting is good if it works in this context)
Perhaps Adams' "Transmigration of Souls" would fit the theme
on May 3, 2012 6:54pm
Greetings from a arranger/composer in your neck of the woods. Please consider the following 
arrangements and compositions for your program. FYI, the works which are published by ECS Publishing 
below are available for purchase only through their distributor, Canticle Distributing (MorningStar Music).
Beau Soir (Beautiful Evening) - music by Claude Debussy (originally for voice & piano) arranged for SATB chorus and piano - French and English - ECS Publishing #7689. Please follow this URL 
hear a performance by the Philovox Ensemble, Robert Schuneman, conductor. 
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (Into This World I Came As a Lost One) - music by Gustav Mahler from Lieder nach Ruckert (originally for soprano and orchestra) arranged for SATB chorus and piano - German and English - ECS Publishing  #5755. Please follow this URL to hear a performance by the New 
England Conservatory Concert Choir, Erica Washburn, conductor, from October 24, 2011, in Jordan Hall, 
That time of year - text by William Shakespeare - for SATB chorus unaccompanied - ECS Publishing  
#7740. Please follow this URL to listen to the official 
world premiere performance by the Saint Joseph Valley Camerata, David A. Seitz, music director, from 
November 14, 2010, Rieth Recital Hall, Goshen College Music Center, Goshen, IN.  Please follow this 
URL to view a PDF of the score.
Nature - text by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow - SATB chorus and piano - ECS Publishing #7432. Please follow this URL to see a PDF of the score and to hear a performance by the Philovox Ensemble, Robert Schuneman, conductor.
Remember - text by Christina Rossetti - SATB divisi - Oxford University Press Catalog No. 
978-0-19-337222-1. Please follow this link for ordering information from their US distributor, Edition Peters. Remember was featured at the Choral Conductor's Workshop Concert, Rodney Eichenberger, Artistic Director, Adam Thome, conductor, in Canon Beach, Oregon. Please follow this URL to see and hear the reading session. Please follow this URL to listen to (not to see) the reading session. 
Thank you for your consideration. 
Stanley M. Hoffman, Ph.D.
on May 4, 2012 11:44am
There will be Rest by Frank Ticheli is gorgeous and poignant without being too much of a "downer."
on May 5, 2012 6:32am
I first would second the three Carols of Death by William Schuman. Quite challenging for singers and conductor but very rewarding pieces on text by Walt Whitman. Not particularly uplifting, but I just love them!

I have also sung Eric William Barnum's Requiescat on a text by Oscar Wilde about the death of his younger sister. It is for SATB choir and SATB semichorus and is hauntingly beautiful without being overly difficult, as i recall. Published by G Schirmer on the Dale Warland series.

Brahms Op. 104 written towards the end if his life has five songs related to the theme, my favorite of which is No. 5, Im Herbst.,_Op._104,_No._5_(Johannes_Brahms)

Great program idea - have fun!!

on May 5, 2012 7:28am
Igor Stravinski's   The Dove Descending?
on May 6, 2012 7:49am
Hi, Joseph!
Sounds like an interesting programming theme....Which choirs are you planning for? There seems to be a lot of recommendations on here but you don't mention the forces you have.
on May 6, 2012 4:43pm
I hope you'll take a look at my composition Forgetting, for SATB and piano -- it sets a text by a beloved colleague who's suffering from ALS ("Lou Gehrig's Disease"), in which she addresses her son.

Complete info, including performance MP3 and sample PDF, available at:

All best!

Jonathan Santore

on May 7, 2012 5:13am
My piece Nightmare (Martröð) is about a corpse visiting a living person in his dream to ask to his remains be found and properly buried. It's in Icelandic but has been performed quite a few times around the world. Here's a recording, if you're interested: 
on May 8, 2012 5:46am
From the UK: the last three pages of Karl Jenkins' 'The Armed Man'
on May 8, 2012 7:07pm
Hi Joseph,
A very challengeing and excellent theme for a concert.
Here are some suggestions that I think would fit your theme well:
Hugo Distlers Totentanz (Dance of Death)- difficult but very worth the challenge
Rene Clausen- In Pace
Stanford's Justorum Animae
Alice Parker- I Got Shoes (a up beat spiritual "when I get to heaben gonna put on ma shoes and gonna walk all over God's heaben")
Holst's Nunc Dimittis (once again, SSAATTBB- difficult for tuning purposes but so worth preparing and singing!!)
Hope these help. Good luck!
Ryan Pryslak
on May 12, 2012 6:21am
In the "Original Sacred Harp," Denison Revision, 1971 edition, on page 181 is a text ascribed to Issac Watts (somewhat derived from part of Psalm 90): "Death like an overflowing stream,
Sweeps us away, our life's a dream ......." containing four verses.   The tune is titled Exit.  In one or another of the early shape note songbooks the first verse only is set to the haunting
tune Amanda (I have a copy somewhere, not too inaccessible.)  One might set all four verses to Amanda for a full hymn-anthem.  
Please have a look at my choral works on my ChoralNet page, and more career information at
on May 13, 2012 8:52pm
Joseph -
I have a newly composed piece that fits with this theme: "The Rest is Silence" using text from the last scene of Hamlet. Here's a link to the premiere performance. I can send you a score if you're interested. 
Philip King 
on May 14, 2012 7:49am
Forever Forward

How I remember
the warm and loving touch of your gentle hand.
How I remember
the generous and fine tone of your voice.
How I remember
the openness and sincerity of your longing look,
in prayerful serenity.

When I close my eyes,
the image of our time together hovers before me,
and I recall the peaceful tones of harmony in song,
when our voices fused.

The fading music does not mean
that we have bid one another final farewell.
Whenever fresh melodies blossom into life anew,
the vision of your presence will live again and again in my memory.

How I remember
the precious dream for which you undertook your quest.
How I remember
your tender smile directed toward new tomorrows.

Prompted by memories of you that my heart contains,
step by step, I move forward.
Determined to embrace the happiness and sadness that each day brings,
step by step, I move ever forward.
Step by step, my memories of you move me forever forward.
I was told the original Japanese version was one of the most performed choral pieces in Japan since the huge earthquake and tsunami last year.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 15, 2012 5:38am
You don't say if you have resources for accompaniment. If so, you should consider Gustav Holst's short choral masterpiece, the "Ode to Death." It is a setting of the "Death Carol" from Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", and infinitely better than the corresponding movement in Hindemith's Requiem. It meets your need for the provocative and uplifting, because the text is welcomes Death as beautiful and necessary, and Holst captures the nuances of the next exquisitely. There is a version with small chamber orchestra accompaniment - I don't know the forces offhand.
on May 16, 2012 5:13am
There are a couple pieces among Haydn's 13 in particular is entitled "Der Greis", detailing the thoughts of an aging man - but one line in particular is "Der Tod klopft an meiner Tur" (Death knocks at my door). I suggest you give it a look. Incidentally, all of Haydn's 13 part-songs, written when he, himself, was a very old man, are just great - and not well-known or done.
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