Mussorgsky Mondays – Night on Bald Mountain

Mussorgsky 1881

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Mussorgsky Mondays.

The two links below will take you two different versions of the piece being discussed.

My original plan was to start us down the path of Pictures at an Exhibition, the magnum opus that was the driving force behind my upcoming novel, The Mussorgsky Riddle, but we are actually going to start with Night on Bald Mountain, which most of us know from Disney’s Fantasia – the quite possibly terrifying scene is available on Vimeo at the link (orchestrated by twentieth-century composer Leopold Stokowski, who also conducted a popular version of Pictures at an Exhibition…).

Why start with this piece? Modest Mussorgsky wrote Night on Bald Mountain in 1867, but that version is rarely played in favor of this version from 1886, which was arranged by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Most of us have at least heard this haunting melody and I must admit, it has haunted my dreams at least once.

Why does this particular combination of composers interest me so? Well… I’ll tell you. The Mussorgsky Riddle is Pictures at an Exhibition meets Scheherazade, at least from a thematic background. And who were the two composers for those two works? Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Here they are working “together” to create a piece of music that has endured for over 130 years and is still played by orchestras across the world every year.

Mussorgsky’s works are awesome in their own right, but often, he seems to gain power when another set of eyes comes behind him. Pictures at an Exhibition in particular is an example of this. Mussorgsky originally wrote Pictures as a piano piece, albeit an extremely complex one. Arranged for orchestra by many over the years, it is Ravel’s orchestration that most have heard, from symphony goers to commercial watchers to Looney Tunes fans. And at some point, I’ll bring in the first version I ever heard, from way back in my Wake Forest days, the art rock version by the band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which first introduced me to this incredible piece of music and this extraordinary composer.

If you saw my post from last week, you’ll note that Modest Mussorgsky just “celebrated” his 175th birthday, so let’s all raise a glass (which he did on more than one occasion) and celebrate his life with his masterpiece, Night on Bald Mountain.

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