Length: c. 12 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle, tambourine, gong), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 13, 1995, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting
Russian nationalism, spearheaded by Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857), was the means through which Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) arrived at his musical individuality. Along with his fellow-members of the “Mighty Five” – Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Balakirev, and Borodin – he consciously worked to develop a national musical art by looking to his country’s folk sources, which included such pagan imagery as appears in Night on Bald Mountain. Because he was not schooled to be a professional musician and thus did not have the conservatory sophistication of say, a Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky found the primitive earthiness of Russian folk music the most natural form of expressiveness. Still, while they did not stifle his compositional energies, the technical limitations under which he labored frustrated him endlessly, and ultimately wrecked his life. Even so, when he died at 42, a victim of alcoholism, he left a rich legacy of Russian music, most of which, however, comes to us in versions made more glossy and civilized, thus less authentic, by Rimsky-Korsakov.
Night on Bald Mountain is no exception, the piece having been recomposed by Rimsky in 1886, some five years after Mussorgsky died. It was, according to Rimsky, a difficult task to “preserve in it all that was best and adding as little of mine as possible.” Despite the expressed problems, many believe it one of the surgeon’s best Mussorgsky operations.
In Russian legend, Bald Mountain is the setting for the yearly witches’ sabbath held on St. John’s Night, the night before the feast of St. John the Baptist. In his version of the Mussorgsky score, Rimsky included this brief description of the legendary occasion: “Subterranean sounds of supernatural voices. Appearance of the spirits of darkness, followed by that of Satan himself. Glorification of Satan and celebration of the Black Mass. The Sabbath revels. At the height of the orgies, the bell of the village church, sounding in the distance, disperses the spirits of darkness. Daybreak.”
The piece seethes with mystery, demonism, and bizarre imagery right from the start, with strings flying eerily, winds screeching, and trombones, tuba, and bassoon intoning a Dies Irae-like melody. “Witches gather and gossip while awaiting their leader – Satan.” Soon, a Russian dance, beginning quietly, grows into orgiastic proportions; excitement rises and falls – “Satan and his band celebrate a Witches’ Sabbath” – until finally a bell tolls and the demons disperse. “The Church’s Sabbath – peace and serenity.”
— Orrin Howard served for many years as the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives.