• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 27: Modest Mussorgsky

If you heard this month’s Picks, then you heard Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. It’s a Halloween classic, for sure, and it’s one of those pieces that everyone knows without necessarily knowing it by name. Many know it from Disney’s Fantasia, but it’s also been used in a host of other films, TV shows, and commercials.

Well, it turns out that Mussorgsky’s 1867 original is actually one of the least commonly performed versions of the piece! The most popular version by far is the 1886 arrangement completed by his friend, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. And the version heard in Fantasia was completed specifically for that film by its conductor, Leopold Stokowski, who based his arrangement on the one completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, NOT Mussorgsky’s original. In fact, the original wasn’t even published until the late 1960s, just over a full century after its completion!

While there are several different versions of the piece, its story is always the same. Mussorgsky himself explained it in a letter…

“So far as my memory doesn't deceive me, the witches used to gather on this mountain, ... gossip, play tricks and await their chief—Satan. On his arrival they, i.e. the witches, formed a circle round the throne on which he sat, in the form of a kid, and sang his praise. When Satan was worked up into a sufficient passion by the witches' praises, he gave the command for the sabbath, in which he chose for himself the witches who caught his fancy. So this is what I've done. At the head of my score I've put its content: 1. Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; 2. Satan's journey; 3. Obscene praises of Satan; and 4. Sabbath ... The form and character of the composition are Russian and original ... I wrote St. John's Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God ... While at work on St. John's Eve I didn't sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John's Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn't know what was happening within me ... I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.”

All three versions have their merits, but Mussorgsky was not the master (read: Westernized) orchestrator that Rimsky-Korsakov was. That’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, in this particular case, I think Rimsky-Korsakov’s version (and, by extension, Stokowski’s), while still excellent, robs the piece of a lot of the atmosphere that permeates Mussorgsky’s original.

I’ve included all three versions here for comparison, so I’ll leave it to you to decide which is your favorite. I think my preference is clear :)

Fantasia (1940), Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski:

1886 version by Rimsky-Korsakov, Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner:

1867 Mussorgsky original, Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado:

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