Curating Music History: A Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky)

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The Piece

The Night on Bald Mountain is quite often heard arranged for bands, and it is also a regular guest on programmes in the Classical Music concert halls. Composed by Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), it is a series of short pieces linked together into a larger symphonic musical picture (known as a tone poem).

The first iteration of the piece were composed by a young Mussorgsky to depict a Witch’s Sabbath being celebrated on St. John’s Eve. However, this piece was rejected by his composition mentor (Balakirev) and fragments were extracted from this first attempt to be later re-orchestrated and re-cast into the final piece which was known by the name “The Fair at Sorochyntsi”.

After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov re-arranged and published the piece that we now know to be “The Night on Bald Mountain” in 1886. This was the form and version that lasted through history and became the concert hall staple throughout the world.

Perhaps the best known rendition of this piece is the version that appeared in Disney’s “Fantasia”! Funnily enough, this is another arrangement (by Stokowski) which was based on the arrangement (by Rimsky-Korsakov) of the original work (by Mussorgsky)!

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The Composer

[By Ilya Repin – Tretyakov Gallery, Public Domain]( https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=138983)

Modest Mussorgsky was a Russian composer from the 19th century and was known as one of “The Five”. The Five (also known as the Mighty Handful or more formally as the New Russian School) were a group of five (surprise) Russian composers who collaborated together to form a unique Russian school of Classical Music that drew upon the folk traditions of Russia rather than deriving from the previous languages of Classical Music which were rooted more in German and French traditions.

For such an important composer (in the Russian tradition), it is interesting to note that his two most famous compositions, “The Night on Bald Mountain” and “Pictures at an Exhibition”, are best known in versions that are arranged by other composers.

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The Performers

Unfortunately, the orchestra that performed the first version wasn’t listed. However, it was conducted by the famous Leonard Bernstein (so, it was quite likely that orchestra was one of the top America orchestras of the time). In addition to being world famous as an acclaimed conductor and interpreter of music, Bernstein was known as a composer of music which melded the American “popular” tradition of Jazz to the Classical. It was his sincere belief that the Classical Art Music of a culture should have it’s roots in the popular music of the time, and for America, that was Jazz and not the imported music from old Europe.

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