20 Aug 2019

MUSSORGSKY – Night on Bald Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov)

by Michael Clive

Performance time: 12 minutes

Over time, Modest Mussorgsky has acquired a reputation as the wild man of Russian music – a notion that is understandable if not entirely deserved. It is certainly reinforced by the thundering climaxes and raw emotion we hear in his music. If his compositions are moody and steeped in Russian folk tradition, that description could fit the music of many of his peers. Still, Mussorgsky’s voice is well-nigh unmistakable, especially in the brooding, innovative harmonies we hear in A Night on Bald Mountain and his other major compositions, such as his opera Boris Godunov.

Composed in 1867, when Mussorgsky was still in his twenties, Night on Bald Mountain is early Mussorgsky and vintage subject matter: a tone poem depicting a witches’ Sabbath occurring on St. John’s Eve, the very night (June 23) when he completed the work to his evident satisfaction. It received its concert premiere in St. Petersburg in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, and achieved immediate success. In the West, our indelible images of the windswept Bald Mountain are derived from the vivid collaboration between Leopold Stokowski and the Disney studios in the animated classic Fantasia (1940).

Modest Mussorgsky

There is much more to the eerie content of this tone poem than just Mussorgsky’s characteristically vivid tone-painting of craggy peak at night in bad weather. He larded his score with bone chilling elements, including the sinister roll of the bass drum and scary descending phrases that slither like serpents. One critic deftly described this witches’ brew as a “hatful of horrors.” In fact, the composer’s four-part structure for this tone poem begins with [1] “an underground noise of inhuman voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness followed by an appearance of Satan and [2] his adoration. [3] A Black Mass. [4] Joyful dancing of the Witches’ Sabbath.” With the tolling of a church bell, the darkness is finally dispersed.