Modest Mussorgsky – Night On Bald Mountain
The finale of October’s “spooky” classical music is none other than Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s (mo-dest, not maw-dest) diabolical work, Night On Bald Mountain. This is another famous work that has been used and referenced numerous times in pop culture. It was one of the first tone poems from a Russian composer (remember tone poems from Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre?). The story that this tone poem tells goes something like this (taken from program notes included in the score):
“Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of Chernobog. 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.”
As with Danse Macabre you can definitely hear the story as the music progresses (fyi, chernobog means “black god” in Russian). Any of you who watched Disney’s Fantasia as a child will be familiar with this piece. I believe it’s the last song, the creepy one with the big demon on the mountain. The version in Fantasia is slightly different, however, being an arrangement made by that conductor, Leopold Stokowski. In fact, that’s not the only time this piece has been re-arranged. It’s got quite the convoluted history, so if you care to find out, continue onward.
Mussorgsky originally wrote and titled it St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, but his mentor at the time refused to perform it. Mussorgsky then took parts of his tone poem and used them in other subsequent compositions. The original version was never actually published until 1968, 100 years after Mussorgsky finished it in 1897. In fact, the version I present you with here and the one most widely recognized and performed is an arrangement from fellow Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (if I haven’t covered him yet, rest assured I will in the future). This version was composed in 1886, 5 years after Mussorgsky’s death, as Rimsky-Korsakov was going through the late composer’s works to prepare them for publication. Rimsky-Korsakov came across one of the compositions using some of Mussorgsky’s ideas from his original work and turned it into a full orchestral edition. Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t actually use the original tone poem in his re-working of Mussorgsky’s music; he didn’t realize at the time that the original St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain was in fact already a finished work. This is a condensed version of the history; you can find the complete background here.
I had fun picking out the songs for this month. I think they definitely show that not all classical music is boring, slow, and sounds the same. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! Here’s Stokowski’s version for Fantasia if you’d like to listen and compare: