October 2009

Night on Bald Mountain

by Modest Mussorgsky

Here's your Halloween treat! ...though I guess this isn't really about Halloween.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (pronounced moh-DEST pe-TROH-vich moo-SORG-skee) was born in Karevo, Russia in 1839. You will sometimes see his last name spelled "Moussorgsky" or "Musorgsky". As he's Russian, the correct spelling is actually "Мусоргский". He wrote a lot of pieces for piano, and a few for orchestra as well. He's only written a couple of pieces that were really popular, but those pieces are very popular. Expect to see his name again in a future Music of the Month.

Night on Bald Mountain actually took several forms. The earliest known version of the music was called St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain and was finished on St. John's Eve, 1867. This was written for orchestra and choir, but the score was lost and wasn't performed in Mussorgsky's lifetime. It was finally discovered and performed in 1968. Mussorgsky used a variation of his original piece for an unfinished opera called Mlada in 1872. He reworked the piece a third time in 1880 for another unfinished opera called The Fair at Sorochyntsi (no, I'm not sure how to pronounce it, either). There was a segment called Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad that was probably the closest to what most of us now recognize as Night on Bald Mountain. Mussorgsky never heard this piece performed, as the opera was unfinished, and he died in 1881.

In 1886, Mussorgsky's close friend, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (see June 2009 Music of the Month) took the music from the Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad and completed it, as he felt Mussorgsky would have done. The resulting piece was called Night on Bald Mountain.

St. John's Eve is not a holiday we're usually familiar with. It dates back to a very old Christian holiday. The Christians deemed Christmas, or Christ's birthday, to be December 25. The book of Luke tells us that John the Baptist was born six months before Jesus. Therefore, the day celebrating John's birthday was June 24. "St. John's Eve" would be June 23.

According to an old Russian legend, witches hold a "witches' sabbath" on St. John's Eve on the Lysa Hora ("Bald Mountain") near Kiev (pronounced KEE-ev). It is known as the "bald" mountain, as there are no trees near the top. Witches gather and gossip as they approach the top of the mountain and await the arrival of Satan. They hold an evil celebration until dawn.

Mussorgsky wrote of the involvement of Chernobog or "black god". According to Slavic mythology, this was some form of evil diety. In Mussorgsky's notes, it almost seems that he treats Chernobog and Satan as the same being. The being "Chernobog" is significant, as it was the artistic inspiration for the most well-known presentation of Night on Bald Mountain.

In 1940, Walt Disney created a masterpiece. It was an animated film scored by various well-known classical pieces. The film was called Fantasia. At the very end of Fantasia, there was an animated story underscored by two different pieces: Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert's Ave Maria. The famous Russian conductor Leopold Stokowski made a special arrangement of both pieces just for the film. Night on Bald Mountain depicts the witches' sabbath on St. John's Eve, and Ave Maria depicts the Feast of St. John (the following day). Thanks to this film, many people were introduced to Night on Bald Mountain, and in an unforgettable way. The film depicts the mighty demon Chernobog in a powerful and memorable way. Many feel that the animation work done for this part of Fantasia is still unmatched today.

You will sometimes see this piece titled A Night on the Bare Mountain. Both names are appropriate, as the true Russian meaning is "a night atop a mountain without trees near the top". These days, though, this type of title is generally rendered by someone being snooty. It is far more commonly known as simply Night on Bald Mountain. Recordings of St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain are referring to recordings of Mussorgsky's original work from 1867. The Rimsky-Korsakov version is far more popular.

Jon's Introduction to This Piece:

This piece holds great significance for our family. It was likely the popularity of Fantasia that brought about awareness of Night on Bald Mountain to Mary Fullmer. She would introduce this music to her little brother Bob (our father). Now, our mother would bring her own classical background to the table. If there was one piece, though, that was deep into my consciousness from before I could even talk, it was Night on Bald Mountain. This piece was listed as my "favorite song" in my baby book.

This is a piece that my brothers and sisters and I would run around the house to for years and years. I have yet to conclusively find the exact recording of this piece that we knew so well, but I'm close. It was on the Odyssey label (presently owned by Sony). The first side of the album contained Marche Slave by Tchaikovsky, followed by Night on Bald Mountain. I've got a lead on a possible conductor, but I'll know when I've seen (and, in particular, heard) it. We wore this record into oblivion.


So here it is, for your Halloween delight (...or play it again on St. John's Eve [June 23], if you like...). Listen for the gathering witches, the evil celebration, and finally, the bell tolls of the dawn. This particular recording is 10 minutes 41 seconds long.

Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky (arrranged by Rimsky-Korsakov)

For those interested, this recording is Riccardo Muti conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Jon's Interpretation:

This piece embodies so much of why I got into Classical music in the first place. This is suspenseful, triumphant, powerful, evil, peaceful, and remorseful all in one package. It's so easy to see the story line of this piece in your mind's eye.

In a more universal way, this depicts the demons that rise within all of us. At some point, these demons will find a sad end. And we are left with the tranquility of the dawn.

Extra Credit:

There is absolutely no way I could do this piece without presenting the clip from Fantasia, so here it is:

If you haven't had too much of this piece by now, you might want to take a listen to a recording of the original St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain. This particular recording is Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic. Notice the use of choir. The character of Satan (or Chernobog) clearly has a voice. There will certainly be some familiar lines to it, but it will be fairly different from what you may have heard before. Enjoy!

St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky

And finally, I went back and forth several times as to whether or not I would include this, but I'm going to. For those of you who feel the need to get your funk on, David Shire came up with a disco arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain for the movie Saturday Night Fever. Try to enjoy it for the novelty.

Night on Disco Mountain by David Shire