Skip to page content

Composed: 1867
Length: 13 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, gong), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 13, 1995, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) tried many times to write the music that we know today as Night on Bald Mountain, and he never got it into satisfactory form. He first had the idea for this music in 1860, when at age 21 he thought about writing an opera based on Gogol’s story St. John’s Eve. Soon this turned into plans for a one-act opera based on Baron Mengden’s play The Witches, and at the center of both of these was to be a horrifying witches’ sabbath. But these plans for a stage-work came to nothing. Then in 1867 Mussorgsky told Rimsky-Korsakov that he had completed what he called a “tone-picture” for orchestra, now titled St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. He was very proud of this music, saying that he considered “this wicked prank of mine a really Russian and original achievement, quite free from German profundity and routine, born . . . on Russian soil and nurtured on Russian corn.”

And then to Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky made a defiant statement that would prove spectacularly wrong: “Let it clearly be understood . . . that I shall never start re-modeling it; with whatever shortcomings it is born, and with them it must live if it is to live at all.” This high resolve lasted until his mentor Mili Balakirev saw the score, savaged it, and refused to allow it to be performed. Badly stung, Mussorgsky set the manuscript aside. But he liked the music well enough that he kept trying to come back to it. When he was invited to contribute an act to the jointly-composed opera-ballet Mlada in 1872, he recast it for chorus as the climactic scene in which Prince Yaromir is saved from demons by the crowing of a cock at dawn. When that collaboration did not work out, Mussorgsky used the choral version as a “dream intermezzo” for his unfinished opera Sorochintsky Fair. He had never heard any of these versions when he died of alcohol poisoning in a Moscow sanatarium at age 42.

In the years after his death, the composer’s friends tried to get his chaotic manuscripts into performing order, and in 1886 Rimsky-Korsakov turned to the St. John’s Eve music, which now existed in a number of versions. Instead of simply going back to Mussorgsky’s purely orchestral version of 1867, Rimsky felt free to draw upon the music in all of its subsequent incarnations: “When I started putting it in order with the intention of creating a workable concert piece, I took everything I considered the best and most appropriate out of the late composer’s remaining materials to give coherence and wholeness to this work.”

This concert offers the extremely rare opportunity to hear both Rimsky’s familiar version and Mussorgsky’s 1867 “tone-picture” St. John’s Eve on the Bare Mountain. Before we turn to those versions, it may be useful to recall that Mussorgsky took as his starting point the old Russian legend of a witches’ sabbath on St. John’s Night (June 23-24) on Mount Triglav near Kiev. That legend tells of midnight revels led by the god Chernobog (sometimes depicted as a black goat), festivities that come to an end with the break of day. Mussorgsky himself left a summary of the events depicted in his music: “Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog. Glorification of the Black God, The Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath, interrupted at its height by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the Spirits of Darkness. Daybreak.”

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Version (1886)

In this age of authenticity, we are automatically suspicious of Rimsky’s complaint that Mussorgsky’s versions “remained unpolished,” and so we should remember that his motives were generous–he had been Mussorgsky’s friend, he liked this music, and he wanted it to find an audience. But Rimsky, for all his virtues, was not Mussorgsky, and his version is not so much a re-orchestration as it is a re-composition (one unsympathetic critic has called it a “bowdlerization”). He based his edition largely on Mussorgsky’s choral version in Sorochintsky Fair, eliminating large sections of the original in the process, and he brought his own considerable skills as an orchestrator to this score, clarifying textures and–even in this dark music–giving it a lighter, brighter sound. His version, quite polished but far from “the Russian soil” of the original, has nevertheless become one of the most popular works in the literature, and its use in Fantasia has made it familiar to millions (though Disney’s cartoonists sanitized their version, carefully excising any hint of the priapic revels of the goat-god that had been part of Mussorgsky’s “wicked prank”).

Mussorgsky’s “Original” Version (1867)

After the familiar Rimsky version, Mussorgsky’s own music arrives like a snarling, tawny beast–there is something wild about this music, and that wildness is the source of both its strength and (for Rimsky) its weakness. It is thick, it is dark, it is rough. Transitions can be awkward, strident discords shriek out, and some passages go on at too much length–there can be no denying that Rimsky brought a measure of formal control to this sprawling music. But in the process he subdued something important in it, and we feel that loss when we hear the original. Just a few years before Mussorgsky wrote this music, Melville finished the manuscript to Moby Dick and wrote to Hawthorne: “I have written a wicked book, and I feel spotless as a lamb.” Mussorgsky would have understood perfectly–in its original form, his “wicked prank” comes searing out of the black night with a savage, exuberant strength.

- Writer and lecturer Eric Bromberger also contributes program notes to the Minnesota Orchestra, the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center, the La Jolla Chamber Music Festival, among many others.