Night on Bald Mountain, by Modest Mussorgsky

St. John's eve bonfire, night on bald mountain

Traditional Cornish Hilltop bonfire. Midsummer’s eve 2009

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a brilliant, but undisciplined composer who left many unfinished works at his death. His colleague Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov finished many of them and had them published.

Oddly enough, Mussorgsky finished Night on Bald Mountain three times. Rimsky-Korsakov finished it again, and it’s his version we most often hear. Mussorgsky’s original version was never performed until 1968.

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain

Mussorgsky night on bald mountain

Portrait by Ilya Repin painted in 1881, just days before Mussorgsky’s death.

Mussorgsky may have considered writing an opera based on Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve” as early as 1860. A friend of Mussorgsky’s wrote a play called “The Witch,” which included a witch’s sabbath scene on a bare mountain.

St. John’s Eve is June 23, the day before the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. Traditional celebrations involve the lighting of bonfires. According to folk tales, it was a night when evil forces and witches were especially powerful.

Whatever the ecclesiastical meaning of the bonfires, in folk culture they were often lit on high ground to keep the witches away—a summertime equivalent of Halloween. The custom of midsummer bonfires continues worldwide to this day.

True to form, Mussorgsky abandoned the project, but in 1867 he wrote an orchestral piece titled “St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain” in the span of 12 days. He couldn’t get it performed.

Mussorgsky’s original structure, as reflected in the program he wrote, is in four parts, loosely in variation form:

  1. An underground noise of inhuman voices. Appearance of the spirits of darkness, followed by an appearance of Satan
  2. Adoration of Satan
  3. A black mass
  4. Joyful dancing of the witch’s sabbath, all of which is ended by the ringing of a church bell and the appearance of dawn.

As originally written, the church bell and dawn bring the orgy of evil to an abrupt end only in the final measure.

In 1872, Mussorgsky collaborated with Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin, and Cesar Cui on an opera-ballet called Mlada and drew on some of his earlier music, including Night on Bald Mountain for his portion.

He used it again in 1874 or so as a choral piece in a comic opera based on another story by Gogol, Sorochintsy Fair. He never finished the opera, despite financial inducements near the end of his life. For this version of the Night on Bald Mountain music he added a longer, calmer ending.

Here is a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunk Chorus, conducted by Claudio Abbado. The YouTube page incorrectly calls it the original.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Night on Bald Mountain

Little of Mussorgsky’s music was published in his lifetime. Rimsky-Korsakov assumed the task of editing much of his music posthumously. He acknowledged that Mussorgsky was talented and wrote music that was new and vital.

But he also thought the manuscripts revealed “absurd, disconnected harmony, ugly part-writing, sometimes strikingly illogical modulation, sometimes a depressing lack of it, unsuccessful scoring of the orchestral things.”

He wasn’t interested in producing an “archeologically exact edition.” He wanted to issue what he felt was worthy of public performance. But by the time he died in 1908, other musicians, both in Russia and the west had begun to become dissatisfied with his versions and wanted to know what Mussorgsky himself had composed.

Regarding Night on Bald Mountain, Rimsky-Korsakov completely rejected the 1867 orchestral version. In particular, Mussorgsky’s third section includes a parody of Russian Orthodox chant that Rimsky-Korsakov found so offensive he omitted it entirely. He also provided his own, less lurid, version of the program.

His finished work, therefore, amounts to a new piece by Rimsky-Korsakov based on Mussorgsky’s music, mostly the third version, omitting the chorus. Despite his criticisms of Mussorgsky’s orchestration, he kept at least some of the weird effects, such as the passages for stopped horn.

DGG – Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain; Ravel: Valse

Night on Bald Mountain in the movies

Many people in the middle of the 20th century probably first encountered Night on Bald Mountain in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, with its nightmare-inducing animation. It was the first movie issued in stereo. Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra provided the soundtrack. Stokowsky conducted his own arrangement, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s.

Eight years earlier, however, Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker had produced a pinscreen animation. Pinscreen is an incredibly time consuming, labor-intensive procedure, but it was a specialty of this Russian-American couple based in France.

Where Fantasia presents a story similar in conception to Rimsky-Korsakov’s substitute for Mussorgsky’s original program, Alexeieff and Parker explore a deeper psychological level. Their version may be the scarier of the two.

They used a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert Coates, for the soundtrack. It, of course, uses Rimsky-Korsakov’s version. Coates took a much faster tempo than Stokowski. His recording captures more of the color and weirdness of the orchestration, too.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980), “Musorgsky, Modest Petrovich” by Gerald Abraham.
Mussorgsky (1839-1881): Night on the Bare Mountain (orig. version) / Paul Serotsky (Music Web International)
Night on Bald Mountain: An Eery Avant-Garde Pinscreen Animation Based on Mussorgsky’s Masterpiece (1933) / Colin Marshall (Open Culture)

Images are public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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