Thursday, September 25, 2014

Night on Bald Mountain

The only reason that anybody outside of  Russian classical music aficionados know about this piece of haunting and dramatic music is because of Disney's Fantasia. Night on Bald ( or Bare) Mountain was that scary piece of music that went along with the cartoon segment featuring none other than the devil himself! Hooray! I admit that I was a bit freaked out by this part of Fantasia when I was little, but it quickly became my favorite due to the scary nature (if you couldn't tell, I'm all about scary). Disney still gets complaints to this day about the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia. Disney even left it off of its original video release. Of course it has now been added back on, as it should be. What may be surprising to some, and certainly was to me, is that the Night on Bald Mountain that we hear is one of many compositions of the original, created by Modest Mussorgsky in 1867. While many of us may recognize Fantasia's version, it is by no means the original, nor even the preferred version.

Modest Mussorgsky was born in Russia in 1839. He was mentored by Miliy Balakirev, who didn't actually approve of his composition of what was first called St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain. Doesn't exactly have the same ring to it. St. John's Eve was the celebration before the holy day celebrating John the Baptist, which occurs on June 24th every year. St. John's Eve is still celebrated all over the world, and usually involves starting a fire. No, not like on Devil's Night. The bonfires, usually referred to as St. John's Fire, are burned as a tradition to ward off evil spirits and witches. Think of St. John's Eve as sort of a Halloween. Some kind of thing, the eve is when evil is afoot, and the next day is a holy one. When Mussorgsky wrote his tone poem, he focused on a witches' sabbath happening on St. John's Eve, while Chernobog (slavic deity, meaning dark god) gathers evil forces around him. Mussorgsky called it a "musical picture," but as I mentioned before, his mentor didn't like it enough to want to perform it, so Mussorgsky tried to insert his composition into different pieces. That didn't really work out, and Mussorgsky never got to hear his "musical picture" performed. After his death, his friends raided his stuff so they could try to piece his unfinished work together. One friend, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov decided to come up with a different composition of St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain, and thankfully shortened it to the title we know today.

Rimsky-Korsakov didn't have Mussorgsky's original tome to work with, (it didn't show up until the 1920's) so he based it off of one of Mussorgsky's later versions that was supposed to be used for Sorochinsty Fair. They are pretty similar, but you can definitely tell he changed quite a few lines. He finished his version five years after Mussorgsky died, with its publishing coming shortly after. The piece became a concert favorite, and was undeniably a success for Rimsky-Korsakov.Though the biggest exposure the song has attained was from Disney. Seventy years later and you still hear this played at concert venues during October, and it's all thanks to Fantasia. Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia's composer, didn't have Mussorgsky's original work either, so he had to do a mix of both Mussorgsky's and Rimsky-Korsakov's. He took the form and content from Rimsky-Korsakov, but used the orchestration from Mussorgsky. While recognizable to this day, this version is not considered the best, and is passed over in favor of Rimsky-Korsakov's interpretation. You can definitively see that Disney and their animators took the context of the original tome poem and put it to screen beautifully. The last section of Fantasia is probably the most memorable of them all. Listen to each version and see if you can tell the differences between them. It's a favorite piece of mine to listen to, though mostly during the Halloween season, which is almost upon us. The song is epic, and it's a shame Mussorgsky never got to hear it performed.