Michelangelo (1475-1564), in addition to dominating renaissance art, wrote more than 300 sonnets and madrigals. Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) set 11 of the sonnets to music shortly before he died. The Michelangelo Suite was originally written for bass and piano (op 145). Shostakovich then orchestrated the songs (op 145a) making the piece even more powerful and chilling than the spare original .

Forty years after the composer’s death it is now clear that he is a giant of art and that these songs, written on the edge of the grave, are among his greatest achievements. They owe most to Mussorgsky, especially to his Songs and Dances of Death (which I’ll get to in another post).

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau -baritone
Vladimir Ashkenazy -conductor
Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

Here are the times and title of each song.

Suite on poems of Michelangelo (Op. 145):
I. Yest’ istiny v rechen’yakh stariny (Truth) 00:00
II. Net radostney vesologo zanyat’ya (Morning) 04:41
III. Skazhi, Lyubov’, voistinu li vzoru (Love) 07:36
IV. Derznu l’, sokrovishche moyo (Separation) 11:56
V. Zdes’ delayut iz chash mechi i shlemy (Wrath) 14:23
VI. Spustivshis’ s neba, v tlennoy ploti, on (Dante) 15:57
VII. Kak budto chtim, a vse zhe chest’ mala (To the Exile) 19:44
VIII. Kogda skalu moy zhestkiy molotok (Creativity) 25:02
IX. Vot eta Noch’, chto tak spokoyno spit (Night) 27:45
X. Uzh chuya smert’, khot’ i ne znaya sroka (Death) 32:17
XI. Zdes’ rok poslal bezvremennyy mne son (Immortality) 37:09

As YouTube videos are evanescent. The music can be downloaded in its entirety from this link – Michelangelo Suite. The texts are in the following file. It contains the original Italian poems, an English translation, and the Russian text that Shostakovich used. Shostakovich Michelangelo Suite. The Russian verses were made from a German translation of the original which were not available in Russia at the time the music was composed.

As is typical for Shostakovich’s music the meanings to the songs are in code. The composer had lived all his adult life under a suffocating dictatorship. He knew he was dying. The first performance of this version took place after his death. But even removed from their immediate time and place they speak to constants of the human spirit.