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Night on Bald Mountain

About the Work

Modeste Mussorgsky
Quick Look Composer: Modeste Mussorgsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: John Storgårds, conductor / Gidon Kremer, violin, plays Sibelius Oct. 6 - 9, 2011
© Robert Markow

The witches' sabbath of St. John's Eve (June 23/24) is a popular legend in many European countries. The location is usually on the heights of an isolated mountain: the Brocken in Germany, Blokula in Sweden or Mt. Triglav ("Bald Mountain") near Kiev. There, witches, sorcerers, demons and hideous imps gather for a night of revelry and orgiastic abandon.

Like a number of other works by the same composer, including Pictures at an Exhibition, the Songs and Dances of Death, and the great operas Khovanshchina and Boris Godounov, Night on Bald Mountain went through several revisions, though Mussorgsky never heard any of them. The first version was finished in June of 1867, appropriately enough, right on St. John's Eve (June 23). Mussorgsky revised the score in 1872, to which he added a chorus, and again when he incorporated it into his opera Sorochintsky Fair. On October 27, 1886, five years after his death, Night on Bald Mountain was finally heard in a version collated from three earlier sources and orchestrated by his colleague Rimsky-Korsakov, who conducted the Russian Symphony Society in St. Petersburg. It was only sometime in the 1920s that Mussorgsky's original was first performed, by the Leningrad Philharmonic, and not until 1968 that it was finally published.

Rimsky-Korsakov's involvement amounted to smoothing out what he considered to be Mussorgsky's stylistic irregularities and "problems" of orchestration. He also shortened it by about two minutes and completely changed the ending, which in the original is savage and furious. However, the musical world is slowly realizing that Mussorgsky's own style, rough-hewn and unpolished as it may be at times, has its own unique appeal. Tonight's concert offers concert-goers the opportunity to hear this composer without the intervention of Rimsky-Korsakov, Leopold Stokowski (for the 1940 film Fantasia) or anyone else.

Here is Mussorgsky's description of the piece, as related to Rimsky-Korsakov:

"The introduction is in two series (assembly of witches); then a theme in D minor with a little development (gossiping) is connected to the procession of Satan in B-flat major. ... The procession theme without development but with an answer in E-flat minor (the debauched character in E-flat minor is quite amusing) concludes with a chromatic scale in D major. Then B minor (glorification) in Russian style with a working out in variations and a half-ecclesiastic quasi-trio, a transition to the Sabbath and finally the Sabbath also in Russian style and in variations. At the close of the Sabbath the chromatic scale and figures from the introduction in two series burst out, which produces a pretty good impression."