Composed: 1867; arr. 1886
Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, tam-tam), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 19, 1922, Alfred Hertz conducting
About this Piece
Mussorgsky 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 remodeling 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 Mussorgsky’s mentor Mily Balakirev saw the score, savaged it, and refused to allow it to be performed. Badly stung, Mussorgsky set the manuscript aside. He liked the music well enough that he kept reworking it, but he never heard any of these versions before he died of alcohol poisoning in a Moscow sanitarium 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. 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.”
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.
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. He based his edition largely on Mussorgsky’s choral version in Sorochyntsi 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.