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MUSSORGSKY | Night on Bald Mountain

MODEST PETROVICH MUSSORGSKY

 

Born in Karevo, Russia 1839
Died in St. Petersburg, Russia 1881

Night on Bald Mountain
Composed from 1860-1867

 

Mussorgsky (pronounced moo-SORG-skee) was part of a group of Russian composers known as the Russian Five that was an innovator of Russian music and promoted a uniquely Russian aesthetic identity. Mussorgsky was the only member of the group, which included Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, who never left his native country. Born into wealth and lineage--his landowning family was reputedly descended from the first Russian Ruler, Rurik-- Mussorgsky was sent to officers' school and was groomed to serve in the military, like many of the men in his family.

He first received piano lessons at the age of six, and later went to St. Petersburg to study at the Peter-and-Paul School with Anton Herke. His love of music prompted him to start composing, even with limited training; he worked under the tutelage of Balakirev, and produced a few songs, piano pieces and compositional exercises, which gave him enough confidence that in 1858, he left the military in order to devote himself to music. By 1863, Mussorgsky had left Balakirev and was largely teaching himself. For many years he worked as a desk clerk for the ministry of transportation; his mental state deteriorated after the death of his mother when he was 26. However, it was at this time that he began to write his first important works that embody the ideal of artistic "realism"; these include Night on Bald Mountian. Mussorgsky died at the age of 42 in relative poverty compared to this privileged childhood.


Mussorgsky's music includes operas, vocal music, and piano music. His most successful works use complex phrasing and meter and convey a vivid sense of drama. Mussorgsky is one of the most daring and creative Russian composers of his time and his works are novel yet stylistically romantic. Many of his compositions are inspired by Russian history and Russian folklore; folk melodies and harmonies can frequently be heard in his works. Mussorgsky was also committed to studying "real" life and expressing these observations in his music. The concept of artistic "realism" involves depicting life as "it is truly lived," taking an interest in the lower strata of society, and rejected the use of symmetrical musical forms because they are unable to convey the unpredictability of "real life."

Mussorgsky's first ideas for the tone poem A Night on Bald Mountain were inspired by the ancient Russian legend of nocturnal revels that take place on St. John's Night in June on a hill called Lysa Hora near Kiev. The legend tells of a demon, Chernobog, who leads the revels until, in the composer's words, "the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village...disperses the Spirits of Darkness." In 1860, Mussorgsky entertained thoughts of using this idea to write a one-act opera based on Nikolai Gogol's story the The Eve of Ivan Kupala. Ivan Kupala is a combination of St. John and a Slavic god, Kupalo whose feast day is the Summer Solstice. This idea didn't materialize and was transformed instead into a plan for a one-act opera based on Baron Mengden's play the Witches. Both projects were abandoned. In 1867, Mussorgsky had turned the music into what he called a "tone-picture" for orchestra. This piece was entitled St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain.  The score for this version was put aside when critics voiced their disapproval. The score was modified several times before finding its present orchestration; Mussorgky's friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov undertook the revisions and re-orchestration of the so called "fourth version" performed it on October 27, 1886 in St. Petersburg as A Night on Bald Mountain. Rimsky-Korsakov altered the ending of the work in his revision of the score. In Mussorgsky's original version, the ending is brutal and savage; Rimsky-Korsakov has the end fade away peacefully. Known as the "Rimsky-Korsakov version" it is a highly polished and effective score that has kept Mussorgsky's name before a wide public and has become one of the most popular works in orchestral literature.





A Night on Bald Mountain

 

Mussorgsky's first ideas for the tone poem A Night on Bald Mountain were inspired by the ancient Russian legend of nocturnal revels that take place on St. John's Night in June on a hill called Lysa Hora near Kiev. The legend tells of a demon, Chernobog who leads the revels until in the composer's words, "the sounds of the faroff bell of the little church in a village...disperses the Spirits of Darkness."

In 1860, Mussorgsky entertained thoughts of using his idea to write a one-act opera based on Nikolai Gogol's story the The Eve of Ivan Kupala. Ivan Kupala is a combination of St. John and a Slavic god, Kupalo whose feast day is the Summer Solstice. This idea didn't materialize and was transformed instead into a plan for a one-act opera based on Baron Mengden's play the Witches. Both projects were abandoned. In 1867, Mussorgsky had turned the music into what he called a "tone-picture" for orchestra. This piece was entitled St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain. The score for this version was put aside when critics voiced their disapproval. The score was modified several times before finding its present orchestration; Mussorgky's friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov undertook the revisions and re-orchestration of the so called "fourth version" performed it on October 27, 1886 in St. Petersburg as A Night on Bald Mountain. Rimsky-Korsakov altered the ending of the work in his revision of the score. In Mussorgsky's original version, the ending is brutal and savage; Rimsky-Korsakov has the end fade away peacefully. Known as the "Rimsky-Korsakov version" it is a highly polished and effective score that has kept Mussorgsky's name before a wide public and has become one of the most popular works in orchestral literature.

The most recognized version of Mussorgsky's tone poem today comes from Walt Disney's 1940 animated film Fantasia as arranged by Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski based his arrangement on Rimsky-Korsakov's in form and content, but on Mussorgsky's original in orchestration. Although the most famous version of A Night on Bald Mountain, the Stokowski arrangement is rarely heard outside of the movie.


Mussorgsky's Tone Poem

Mussorgsky was inspired by a Russian short story titled, St. John's Eve. It is about the night of June 23, when people in the British Isles and Europe celebrate with bonfires." "St. John's Eve is a night much like Halloween, when people used to believe that devils and witches came out to roam the earth. Sometimes people celebrating St. John's Eve burn a straw witch in the bonfire

The composition opens with creeping violins and snippets of melody tossed amid winds, trombone and bassoons. A raucous Russian dance, generated by violins and clarinets, grows to enormous scale. Momentarily, the dance is interrupted before the demon returns, sending the music into a whirlwind. With the sounding of church bells and the coming of dawn, the participants retire, leaving the work to close quietly, but with reservations---for at anytime, the demon might return!



A peasant witnesses a mid-summer revelry on Bald Mountain near Kiev on St. John's Eve. (June 24)  The nocturnal demon, or black god, Chernobog leads the revelies, which only came to an end with the break of day, at which time the bells in a near-by village toll the coming dawn and the end to night.

What To Listen For


Youtube Link to Night on Bald Mountain Recording

From the performance video by Akademia Filmu i Telewizji, use the following time marks for analysis:

0:35 First theme
1:58 Second theme
3:50 Fanfare
5:57 Return of first theme
8:20 Church bells chime
10:11 Clarinet solo
10:48 Flute solo
 

Night on Bald Mountain       

Tone poem by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky


While listening to Night on Bald Mountain, you can analyze the piece as a class, in small groups, or individually using a bubble map.

Analysis elements to choose from (or create your own
):

  • Tempo
  • Instruments
  • Dynamics
  • Texture (thick/thin)
  • Timbre
  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Meter
  • Mood
Follow the following steps:

Step 1: Download the Bubble Map Template for your class 

Step 2: Choose analysis elments you wish to explore from the list above or  make a list of your own. Write one element in each of the blank bubbles.

Step 3: Listen to Night on Bald Mountain and have your students expand on each element they hear. For example: Is the tempo slow or fast? What does the mood of the piece feel like? What different dynamics do you hear? 

Step 4: You can listen to the piece as a class and have students complete the map individually or you can divide the class into groups and have each group expand on one of the elements. 

Step 5: As a class or in small groups discuss what was heard. Discuss the differences and the similarities. Was their a common element that everyone heard? Did people hear different things, if so, what are those differences?

Step 6: Play the recording again and point out the elements you and your class heard throughout the piece. 


Download Bubble Map Template




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