Classical Music For Halloween: Night On Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky

Every year when Halloween comes around I enjoy finding new works of classical music that spook me out, but I am always drawn back to one of the most famous compositions associated with Halloween, "Night On Bald Mountain" by Modest Mussorgsky. 

Like so many people, I am partial to this composition because it was included in Disney's film, "Fantasia." The demons and Dantean scenes of hell gave me such a great fright as a 10 year old kid. Later in life. the more I explored classical music, I was shocked to learn that the ending of the Night on Bald Mountain scene in Fantasia is actually Schubert's Ave Maria. It always seemed like the perfect ending to me.

Digging deeper, I learned that the version for Fantasia was arranged by Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia's conductor . I wondered why he felt he could take the license to make such a radical change and I discovered that final version played by orchestras all around the world was actually arranged by Mussorgsky's friend, Rimsky-Korsakov. The version we hear is NOT Mussorgsky's original composition!!! I was shocked.

The back story on this composition is interesting. Night On Bald Mountain was one of the first "tone-poems" ever composed by a Russian composer. (A tone poem is a composition that tells a specific story) Mussorgsky completed his composition on June 23rd 1867. The tone poem may be based on a Russian legends that claim witches meet the night before Saint John's Day (June 24th) to commemorate the summer solstice when day and night are equally into 12 hours. In Fact the original title was "St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain."

When Mussorgsky gave the composition to his teacher, his teacher refused to perform it saying it was no good. But Mussorgsky was proud of his work, so he took parts of Night on Bald Mountain and worked them in to future compositions. Altogether he has two re-workings of the tone poem. One became "Glorification of Chernobog" from his opera Mlada, and "Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad" from another opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi. Both of these works are less known and rarely performed.

It wasn't until after his death that his friend, Nikolai Rimsky-Korakov rearranged the tone poem and performed it October 15th, 1866, five years after Mussorgsky's death. In 1940 Stokowski then use Rimsky-Korsakov's version to create his arrangement for Fantasia and thus expose this work of music to millions of people around the world. Mussorgsky's original orchestration of "Night on Bald Mountain" was never performed in his lifetime and first performed in the late 1920s when a musician in Russia discovered the score in a state library. But still, even today most concert goers hear Rimsky-Korszkov's version. 

Musicians are know for receiving criticism all through out life and Mussorgsky is clearly no exception. So the lesson learned from this sage of Russian music is that when we create something, we need to share it despite our fear of criticism and often with more than one person. Rimsky-Korszkov like it. Concert goers in 1866 liked it. One critique is never an accurate assessment of our creative work.  

For your enjoyment (and comparison) here is the Stokovski version from Fantasia with Ave Maria ending, Rimsky-Korsakov's version which is most widely performed, and Mussorgsky's original version.