The Todeslied der Bojaren
(‘Death song of the Boyars’) comes from Act 5 Scene 5 of Die Bojaren
, the first play in the trilogy Alexis
(1832) by Karl Leberecht Immermann, who fought against Napoleon at Waterloo. (Boyars were serf-owning aristocrats second only to the tsar’s family in feudal Slavic societies from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries.) The older writer and younger composer had met to discuss a possible operatic collaboration; if Alexis
did not inspire Mendelssohn to make an opera from it, he did compose this song a few years later, on 13 October 1841, the result perhaps being the most arctic-austere two pages in all of Mendelssohn. And no wonder: in the play it is sung by the boyars Stephan Gleboff, Basilius Dolgoruki and Abraham Lapuchin as they await execution for treason against the tsar Peter the Great (the trilogy focuses on Peter’s only son, Alexei or Alexis, who was tortured and killed on Peter’s orders in 1718).
from notes by Susan Youens © 2010