A Night on the Bald Mountain usually refers to one of two compositions—either a seldom performed early (1867) 'musical picture' by Modest Mussorgsky, St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain (Иванова ночь на лысой горе, Ivanova noch' na lïsoy gore), or a later (1886) and very popular 'fantasy for orchestra' by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, A Night on the Bare Mountain (Ночь на лысой горе, Noch' na lïsoy gore), based almost entirely on Mussorgsky's themes.
Inspired by Russian literary works and legend, Mussorgsky made a witches' sabbath the theme of the original tone poem, completed on June 23, 1867 (St. John's Eve). St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain and Rimsky-Korsakov's 'musical picture' Sadko (also composed in 1867) share the distinction of being the first tone poems by Russian composers.
As with so much of Mussorgsky's music, the work had a tortuous compositional history and was arranged after his death in 1881 by his friend and fellow member of the The Mighty Handful Rimsky-Korsakov. It was never performed in any form during Mussorgsky's lifetime. The Rimsky-Korsakov edition premiered in 1886, and has become a concert favorite.
Note on the title: The Russian word «лысая» (lïsaya) literally means "bald", but is used in this case figuratively for a mountain supposedly barren of trees. Therefore, many experts officially title the piece A Night on the Bare Mountain, even if they commonly refer to it as Night on Bald Mountain.
The following list traces the evolution of the Night on Bald Mountain music:
Opera Project: St. John's Eve (1858)
A sheet of paper apparently found among Mussorgsky's manuscripts contains the following statement: "Program of the opera St. John's Night, in three acts, after the tale by Gogol, written by P. Boborykin, in the presence and with the help of Modest Mussorgsky, Eugen Mussorgsky, and Vasiliy. Witness to the proceedings: Mily Balakirev. This curious fragment, dated December 25, 1858, has been interpreted as an indication of Mussorgsky's intention of writing an opera on the subject of Gogol's short story St. John's Eve (Вечер накануне Ивана Купала, Vecher nakanune Ivana Kupala, St. John's Eve). Gogol's bloody tale contains the elements of devilry and witchcraft common to other stories in the Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka collection, but does not, as is often claimed, feature a witches' sabbath. Although Mussorgsky may have composed thematic sketches for this project, his plans were not mentioned again.
Opera Project: The Witch (1860)
The theme of a witches' sabbath, the central theme in all subsequent Night on Bald Mountain projects, appears to have been derived from the nonextant play The Witch (Ведьма, Ved'ma, Witch) by Baron Georgy Mengden, a military friend of the composer. In 1860 Mussorgsky informed Balakirev that he had been commissioned to write one act of an opera on this subject. However, as with the previous project, it is unknown whether any materials were composed, and if so, whether they were transferred to subsequent projects.
Work for piano and orchestra (early 1860s)
Rimsky-Korsakov declares in his memoirs (Chronicle of My Musical Life) that in the early 1860s Mussorgsky had written a version of the Night on Bald Mountain music for piano and orchestra, under the influence of Liszt's Totentanz. However, it is believed that Mussorgsky did not hear Liszt's work until 1866, by which time he was planning the orchestral tone poem St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain (see below). No trace of a work for piano and orchestra has survived outside Rimsky-Korsakov's recollections, so it is assumed that the score was lost, or, more likely, that it had never existed.
Tone Poem: St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain (1867)
In 1866 Mussorgsky wrote to Balakirev expressing a desire to discuss his plans for The Witches, his informal name for his Night on Bald Mountain music. In early June 1867, he began composing the orchestral version of the piece, and finished the score on June 23 (St. John's Eve). He described the event in a letter to Vladimir Nikolsky:
"My St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain (a far better title than The Witches) is, in form and character, Russian and original; and I want to feel sure that it is thoroughly in keeping with historic truth and Russian folk tradition—otherwise it would not be good enough. I wrote it quickly, straight away in full score without preliminary rough drafts, in twelve days. It seethed within me, and I worked day and night, hardly knowing what was happening within me. And now I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like my Savishna, grown on our country's soil and nurtured on Russian bread.
He also stated—wrongly, as it turned out—that he would never re-model it: "with whatever shortcomings, it is born; and with them it must live if it is to live at all." Having finally completed the work, Mussorgsky was crushed when his mentor Mily Balakirev was savagely critical of it. The score of this 'first version' was put aside, and did not appear in print until 1968.
Unfinished Opera: Mlada (1872)
The first re-modelling of the work took place in 1872, when Mussorgsky revised and recast it for chorus and orchestra as part of Act III that he was assigned to contribute to the collaborative opera-ballet Mlada. In this new version the music was to form the basis of the Night on Mt. Triglav (Ночь на горе Триглав, Noch' na gore Triglav) scene. Mussorgsky referred to this piece under the title Glorification of Chornobog in a list of his compositions given to Stasov. Mlada was a project doomed to failure, however, and this 'second version' languished along with the first.
Unfinished Opera: The Fair at Sorochyntsi (1880)
The work's 'third version', the Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad (Сонное видение паробка, Sonnoye videniye parobka), came into existence eight years later when the composer revived and revised the second version (see Night on Mount Triglav above) to function as a 'dream intermezzo' in his opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi (1874–80), a work which was still incomplete at the time of his death in 1881. Mussorgsky originally chose the end of Act I of the opera as the location for his choral intermezzo. It is now generally performed in the Shebalin version (1930) of the opera, where it is more logically relocated to Act III, just after the peasant lad's dumka. The theme of the dumka also serves as one of the main themes of the new quiet ending in this version (which also finds its way into the Rimsky-Korsakov edition), thus forming a musical frame to the intermezzo.
Original Tone Poem (1867)
Rimsky Korsakov Edition (1886)
Original Tone Poem (1867)
The following program is taken from the score:
- Сбор ведьм, их толки и сплетни (Assembly of the witches, their chatter and gossip)
- Поезд Сатаны (Cortège of Satan)
- Чёрная служба, Messe noire (Black service, Black mass)
- Шабаш (Sabbath)
More details and a variation to this program may be found in a letter written by the composer to Vladimir Nikolsky:
"So far as my memory doesn't deceive me, the witches used to gather on this mountain, gossip, play tricks and await their chief—Satan. On his arrival they, i.e. the witches, formed a circle round the throne on which he sat, in the form of a kid, and sang his praise. When Satan was worked up into a sufficient passion by the witches' praises, he gave the command for the sabbath, in which he chose for himself the witches who caught his fancy. –So this is what I've done. At the head of my score I've put its content: 1. Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; 2. Satan's journey; 3. Obscene praises of Satan; and 4. Sabbath... The form and character of the composition are both Russian and original".
Glorification of Chornobog from Mlada (1872)
Mussorgsky's score for the Glorification of Chornobog portion of Mlada has not survived. The following scenario is taken from Rimsky-Korsakov's later (1890) 'magic opera-ballet' based on the same libretto.
Mlada is set in the 9th or 10th century city of Retra, in the (formerly) Slavic lands between the Baltic Sea coast and the Elbe River. This would be the land of the pre-Christian Polabian Slavs, in the region corresponding to the modern German areas of Vorpommern, Mecklenburg, or Holstein.
The Mlada scenario is the only Night on Bald Mountain setting that mentions a 'Mt. Triglav', where the supernatural events of Act III take place. It is reasonable to assume that this Mt. Triglav is not the famous peak in Slovenia, some 750 kilometers distant. It is certainly not the Lysa Hora near Kiev, as is often mentioned in program and liner notes. However, the description of it in the libretto, as possessing a snow-covered peak, gorges, and glaciers, makes it difficult to place it among the low mountains and hills of northeast Germany. Incidentally, the name Triglav ['tri'(three) + 'glav'(heads)] happens to be the name of an ancient three-headed slavic deity or a trinity of deities.
Voyslava and her father Mstivoy, the Prince of Retra, have poisoned Mlada, the betrothed of Yaromir, Prince of Arkona. Voyslava sells her soul to Morena, an evil goddess, to obtain her aid in making Yaromir forget Mlada so she may have him to herself. In Act III, the shade (ghost) of Mlada leads Yaromir up the slopes of Mt. Triglav to a pine wood in a gorge on top of the mountain. Mlada's shade joins a gathering of the spirits of the dead. She expresses in mime to Yaromir the wish to be reunited with him in the kingdom of dead souls. He is eager to join her. However, there is a rumbling sound announcing the appearance, apparently from underground, of the following fantastic characters:
|Злые духи||Zlïye dukhi||Evil spirits|
|Чёрнобог||Chornobog||'Chorno'(black) + 'bog'(god), an infernal Slavic deity, in the form of a goat|
|Морена||Morena||An infernal Slavic deity|
|Кащей||Kashchey||An ogre familiar from Russian folktales; plays a gusli|
|Червь||Cherv||Worm, god of famine|
|Чума||Chuma||Plague, god of pestilence|
|Топелец||Topelets||'Drowner', god of floods|
The evil spirits sing in a strange demon language. Morena calls on Chornobog to help make Yaromir forsake Mlada. Kashchey determines that Morena and Chornobog will be successful if Yaromir is seduced by another. Chornobog commands Yaromir's soul to separate from his body, and for Queen Cleopatra to appear. Instantly the scene changes to a hall in Egypt, where the shade of Cleopatra attempts to entice Yaromir's soul to her side with a seductive dance. She almost succeeds in doing so when a cock crow announcing the break of day causes the entire infernal host to vanish. Yaromir awakens and ponders the mysterious events he has witnessed.
Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad from The Fair at Sorochyntsi (1880)
The Fair at Sorochyntsi is set in and around the Ukrainian village of Velyki Sorochyntsi, some 500 kilometers east of Kiev and the famous 'Bald Mountain' (Lysa Hora), in the year 1800.
The peasant Solopy Cherevik, his domineering wife Khivrya, and pretty daughter Parasya are visiting the Sorochintsi Fair. Parasya is wooed by Gritsko Golopupenko, the "peasant lad" of the title. Gritsko desires Cherevik's consent to marry his daughter. Although Cherevik is not against the match, his wife objects because Gritsko had thrown mud in her face on the way to the fair. Gritsko strikes a bargain with a gypsy to assist him in winning Parasya. They make use of the superstitious fears of the fairgoers, who believe that the location of the fair this year is ill-chosen, it being the haunt of a devil who was thrown out of hell, took to drinking, went broke, pawned his jacket, and has returned to claim it. After various pranks and comic circumstances, Gritsko achieves his goal and all ends happily.
At the end of Act 1, Gritsko falls asleep some distance from the fair, and, because there has been talk of devilry, has a dream of a witches' sabbath. The following remarks are taken from the score, which is dated May 10, 1880:
Act I, Scene II – Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad
- A hilly desolate area. An approaching subterranean choir of infernal forces.
- Witches and devils surround the sleeping peasant lad.
- On a hill appear fiery serpents. The approach of Chornobog.
- Chornobog climbs up from underground. Following him are Kashchey, Cherv, Chuma, Topelets, Smert, and the remaining members of his retinue.
- Worship of Chornobog: dwarfs begin to circle Chornobog and bow down. Behind them are also visible demons. Chornobog gives the signal for general earthly worship.
- Stroke of a morning bell.
- Satan and his retinue vanish. The scene is covered by clouds.
Surviving the transfer from Glorification of Chornobog are the same supernatural characters, although Morena has been replaced by Death (Смерть, Smert'). Chornobog and his accomplices form a kind of Six Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The demon language the characters sing, of which Mussorgsky was contemptuous in a letter, is preserved. Interestingly, Mussorgsky does not differentiate Satan from Chornobog clearly, in either this scenario or the next.
The following program was sent to Vladimir Stasov by Mussorgsky about three months after its composition in 1880:
"The peasant lad sleeps at the foot of a hillock at some distance from the hut where he should have been. In his sleep appear to him:
- Subterranean roar of non-human voices, uttering non-human words.
- The subterranean kingdom of darkness comes into its own -- mocking the sleeping peasant lad.
- Foreshadowing of the appearance of Chornobog and Satan.
- The peasant lad left by the spirits of darkness. Appearance of Chornobog.
- Worship of Chornobog and the black mass.
- At the wildest moment of the sabbath the sound of a Christian church bell. Chornobog suddenly disappears.
- Suffering of the demons.
- Voices of the clergy in church.
- Disappearance of the demons and the peasant lad's awakening."
This scenario parallels that found in Act III of Mlada—both Gritsko and Yaromir wake up in the wilderness at the break of day after an evening of real or imagined demonic revelries.
Rimsky Korsakov Edition (1886)
For Rimsky-Korsakov's edition we apparently return to the 'Bald Mountain' (Lysa Hora) in or near Kiev.
“Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of Chornobog. Glorification of Chornobog 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.”
Rimsky Korsakov edition (1886)
In the years after Mussorgsky's death, his friends prepared his manuscripts for publication and created performing editions of his unfinished works to enable them to enter the repertoire. The majority of the editorial work was done by Rimsky-Korsakov, who in 1886 produced a heavily redacted edition of A Night on the Bare Mountain from the Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad vocal score and premiered at at the first of the Russian Symphony Concerts:
He apparently did not make use of the original tone poem of 1867 in making his revision. The published score of his edition states "Completed and orchestrated by N. Rimsky-Korsakov, 1886". If he had the score of the 1867 tone poem at hand, he would have noticed that it was both completed and orchestrated. He also did not remember Mussorgsky's letter to him announcing that he had finished the work on St. John's Day, and had composed the work directly into full orchestral score, a practice unusual for him. Mussorgsky's manuscript is believed to have been in the keeping of Balakirev at the time. The Rimsky-Korsakov edition is by any standards a highly polished and effective score which has proved brilliantly successful, becoming one of the most popular works in the orchestral literature.
Stokowski arrangement (1940)
Millions of twentieth-century listeners owe their initial acquaintance with Mussorgsky's tone-poem to the use within Walt Disney's 1940 film Fantasia of a specially produced version based on the Rimsky-Korsakov recomposition in form and content (though notably without the 'fanfare' that mark the entrance of the black god Chornobog) but Mussorgsky's original in orchestration, as edited and revised by Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski was familiar to some extent with Mussorsky's style, having conducted the U.S. premiere of the original version of Boris Godunov in 1929 and subsequently produced a symphonic synthesis of Boris for concert purposes. Stokowski went on to produce an even more drastic recomposition of Night for concert performance. This version was shortened for use in Fantasmic!
Sources: http://www.gepr.net/st.html (scroll down this Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock webpage to find Stern Combo Meissen); http://www.krautrock-musikzirkus.de/de,Stern-Combo-Meissen_641,N.html (German); http://www.ostbeat.de/SternCombo.htm (German); http://www.ostmusik.de/sternmeissenpl.htm (German); http://www.gaudela.net/portugalprog/Progressivo_e_Classicos-2.html (Portuguese); http://www.sterncombomeissen.de/Discographie.html (German).
Original tone poem (1867)
Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad (1880)
As part of The Fair at Sorochyntsi:
Rimsky-Korsakov edition (1886)
Recordings of Rimsky-Korsakov's revision are too numerous to catalog in this article.
Stokowski arrangement (1940)
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