Night on Bald Mountain

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            Mussorgsky is, of course, familiar to concertgoers for his ever-popular work for solo piano, Pictures from an Exhibition—made even more well known in Ravel’s masterful orchestration.  Opera lovers occasionally are afforded the opportunity to attend a performance of his stunning opera, Boris Godunov, but for most, that’s it.  For the great preponderance of his work is encountered through his many songs, well known to singers and teachers of voice. The single exception to this is manifestly his evergreen tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain—except that he didn’t compose it.  Well, not in the conventional sense of a complete, polished composition.  For it has a checkered history, to be sure.

            A tone poem is a single movement for orchestra that, in the best romantic tradition, is about something other than its straightforward musical elements.   Composers of the eighteenth century were quite satisfied with music that stood on its own:  first theme, second theme, etc.  But, our passionate romantics of the nineteenth century were also interested in composing music that took as its inspiration a picture, a story, a poem--anything that could stimulate the imagination.   So, by the late 1840s this trend was in full swing, led by the inimitable Franz Liszt.   Our young Modest Mussorgsky was quick to pick up on the trend, and so was inspired around 1858 to compose a work partly drawn from recycled elements of an opera abandoned earlier that definitely had a romantic focus: witchcraft and deviltry, tentatively entitled, St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain. Some years later, twenty-eight years old, and spending the summer of 1867 on his brother’s farm, he further developed the idea into an orchestral work, now called “The Witches.”   He offered it to his colleague, Balakirev, for performance on a concert of the Russian Music Society.  The latter was severely critical of the work, and the composer withdrew it.  That was the practical end of the matter for Mussorgsky, for he never worked on or edited the work, although he did attempt to include elements in two subsequent operas.  But, he never heard it performed as he had conceived it—an orchestral work.  Fast-forward to years later, after the composer’s death, when distinguished composers and music scholars were assiduously—but misguided, to be sure—busily working over Mussorgsky life’s work, “correcting” his supposed crudities and fundamental compositional mistakes.   The eminent Russian composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was chief among these do-gooders, and he took it upon himself to more or less re-compose Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.  The result was a work that was as much Rimsky-Korsakov’s as that of Mussorgsky.  Given its première in 1886, it became the version heard almost exclusively ever since.   Well, it may be mostly by Rimsky-Korsakov, based upon Mussorgsky’s themes, but it’s a corker, nevertheless, and justly beloved.

            The story is simple.  For those not familiar with the details of the Christian ecclesiastical calendar, the feast day of St. John the Baptist is exactly six months before Christmas, thus (generally) occurring on June 23rd.   Throughout the Christian world, for many, many centuries, the eve of the holiday was popularly thought of as the province of the Devil and his minions, but other traditions simply invoke old, Summer Solstice observations.  Every country in greater Europe still has its own version of traditions, many of which invoke various nefarious characters and their evil deeds on that night.   There are various rocky promontories—mostly Slavic--upon which these “black” celebrations occur, the most famous being the Lysa Hora in Kiev, Ukraine.  Rimsky-Korsakov included a brief description of the “story” in his score.  Following it, the work begins with “subterranean sounds of non-human voices, followed by the appearance of the spirits of darkness.”  Thereupon an evil “black god,” traditional in Slavic countries, materializes, and presides over a “Black Mass.”  The ringing of a church bell in the distance breaks up this infernal ritual, and the evil spirits disperse.  Morning has come, God’s on his throne, and all’s right with the world.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan