Work: Night on the Bare Mountain
About This Work
In a July 5, 1867 letter to Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky wrote "(I have) finished St. John's Night on Bald Mountain, a musical picture with the following program: (1) assembly of the witches, their chatter and gossip; (2) cortege
of Satan; (3) unholy gratification of Satan; and (4) witches' sabbath." Mussorgsky proclaims "in form and character my composition is Russian and original. Its tone is hot and chaotic.... St. John's Night is something new and is bound to produce a satisfactory impression...."
The impression was not so satisfactory for Mily Balakirev, who rejected the work in 1869 from consideration for a Free School concert. Balakirev sent the manuscript back to Mussorgsky bearing handwritten marks such as the comment "Rubbish!" in the margins. Later, under the spell of Liszt's Totentanz, Mussorgsky considered refashioning the movement as a piano/orchestral work, but nothing came of this plan.
In May 1877, Mussorgsky drew up the scenario of his comic opera Sorochintsy Fair, proposing an extensive revision of the St. John's Night music as an Intermezzo opening the third act. Mussorgsky completed this part of the opera in 1880, retaining music from (1) and (3) of the original work, and adding new material. Identified as "Dream of the Young Peasant Lad," this also had a new program: as a boy dreams on a hill, he is threatened by inhuman voices and finds himself mocked in the realm of shadows. The voices warn of the Devil and the "Black God" Chernobog; as the shadows fade, both appear. Chernobog is glorified, a Black Mass is sung, and a Witches' Sabbath breaks out. As a church bell intones, Chernobog disappears and the demons writhe in agony. A church choir sings, the demons fade away, awakening the boy. Mussorgsky was never to complete Sorochintsy Fair.
In 1867 letter quoted above, Mussorgsky wrote Rimsky-Korsakov "I should like us to examine the orchestration together (...) we might clear up many things." Rimsky-Korsakov fulfilled his end of the bargain in 1886, five years after Mussorgsky's death, in producing Night on Bald Mountain (also "Night on the Bare Mountain"). This was the "Lad's Dream" music, minus its choral parts and with its abrupt, dramatic effectual "stings" removed. The first half of the second section was removed, and Rimsky-Korsakov dropped most of the major-key material save a brief fanfare figure. The whole work was subjected to a streamlining of orchestration and meter, and divided into symmetrical sections. Rimsky-Korsakov has often been accused of "composing" the "Matins Bell" section that concludes Bald Mountain, but in truth the music is all Mussorgsky's save the final flute trio at the very end. The Rimsky-Korsakov edition was an immediate worldwide success from the day it was launched and helped to establish Mussorgsky's name. It remains the most popular version of Mussorgsky's famous piece, although the original versions are available in modern editions and are revived to acclaim as well. Some conductors, such as Claudio Abbado and Esa-Pekka Salonen, have made personal specialties of the 1867 version.
-- Uncle Dave Lewis
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