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Night on Bald Mountain, Rimsky-Korsakov Arrangement

About the Work

Modeste Mussorgsky
Quick Look Composer: Modeste Mussorgsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Lorin Maazel, conductor/ Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin, plays Barber Oct. 15 - 17, 2009
© Paul Horsley
Almost none of the compositions by which we best know Modest Mussorgsky is played today in its original form. From the masterly Pictures at an Exhibition, originally for solo piano, to the opera Khovanshchina and the Songs and Dances of Death, the music of this erratic Russian genius has been subjected to all manner of arrangements and orchestrations. Rimsky-Korsakov tells us that Mussorgsky's original versions of the work that he was to arrange as Night on Bald Mountain were impractical. This is only his opinion; one of these quite viable originals has in fact recently been revived and recorded. If he was not one of the great masters of instrumentation, Mussorgsky seems at least to have known the sound he wanted. But it is Rimsky's admittedly excellent orchestration of Bald Mountainthat continues to live on in the concert hall.

First composed in 1867, the work whose Russian title translates St. John's Eve on the Bare Mountain underwent two subsequent adaptations by the composer—first as part of the opera-ballet Mlada, and finally as a sort of ill-fitting "dream-sequence" in his Gogol-based opera Sorochintsy Fair. After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, Rimsky-Korsakov took portions of all three versions of the St. John's music to create his orchestral tour de force.

"At first I could make nothing of Night on Bald Mountain," Rimsky wrote in his autobiography. "Mussorgsky had planned the piece originally in the 1860s (it was then called Midsummer's Eve), under the influence of Liszt's Totentanz, and then left it lying for a long time." After describing the other versions, Rimsky-Korsakov concludes that "none of these as a whole was suitable for publication and performance. Consequently I resolved to make a purely orchestral piece from Mussorgsky's material and did my utmost to keep all the best and most connected parts without change, and to put in as little as possible of my own." Rimsky-Korsakov's reconstruction was published in 1886.

Inspired partly by a Gogol tale, Mussorgsky's Bald Mountain depicts a Witches' Sabbath on a Ukrainian mountain-top. Rimsky described his version thus: "Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the Chernobog [‘Black God']. Glorification of Chernobog and celebration of the Black Mass. Witches' Sabbath. At the height of the orgy, the bell of the little village church is heard from afar. The Spirits of Darkness are dispersed. Daybreak."