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Composed: 1867
Length: c. 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 (original version): December 13, 1995, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting

The genesis of St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain, one of Mussorgsky’s most popular works, is poorly understood. We know that the idea for music on the subject was present as early as 1860. On July 5, 1867, an elated Mussorgsky wrote to his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov with the good news that he had finished the piece – on June 23, the eve of St. John’s Day, as fate would have it.

The best characterization of Mussorgsky’s first and only tone poem is found in an important (and typically Mussorgskian) letter he wrote to Vladimir Nikolsky: “‘The Witches’ – a vulgar name or nickname, as it were, for my piece – is actually St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain, so it’s a bagatelle with a name, as you see. Unless my memory deceives me, witches used to gather on this mountain, talk scandal, and wait for their chief Satan. After his arrival, they form a circle around the throne on which the chief, in the form of a giant goat, has seated himself, and they glorify him. When Satan has reached enough of a rage thanks to the witches’ glorification, he gives the sign for the sabbath to begin and then picks himself out the witches who have taken his fancy. That’s the way I did it... 

“If my composition is going to be played, I would prefer that its contents be put in the program so the public will understand. The form and character of my composition are Russian and original. Its tone is ardent and chaotic... I wrote St. John’s Night very quickly, directly into the full score, without rough drafts, finishing it in twelve days, thank God... Something was seething within me, and I simply didn’t know what was happening to me... In the ‘Sabbath’ I scattered the various parts around the orchestra, which will be easy for the listener to comprehend, since the coloration of the winds and strings creates rather palpable contrasts. I think that’s exactly what a sabbath’s like, that is, scattered in constant interchange until the final interweaving of all the scummy, infernal rabble; at least that’s how the sabbath has been rushing about in my imagination. I’m babbling on about my Night, but I suggest that this is because I see in my sinful mischief an original Russian work, a work not steeped in German profundity of thought and routine, but instead... a work that flowed forth in our native fields and was fed on Russian bread.”

Unfortunately, Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov found the piece too crude, and it was put aside, though over the next two decades Mussorgsky worked up versions of it for the collaborative opera Mlada (1872) and the unfinished opera Sorochintsy Fair (1874-80). Mussorgsky never heard his quintessentially Russian tone poem performed, in any version. 

In 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky completely rewrote the piece, borrowing only a small amount of the original material and appending to it, in the form of a tranquil conclusion, an instrumental arrangement of Gritsko’s aria from Sorochintsy Fair. It was in this form that “Mussorgsky’s” piece became a staple of the symphonic repertoire. The original 1867 version was not published and performed until 1968, just over a century after it was written.

Thomas Hodge