MODEST MUSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Night on Bald Mountain, arr. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1867/1886)
The genesis of Modest Musorgsky's macabre tale of a witches' sabbath was not an easy one — as few things were for this composer. He was drawn to the subject matter of pagan doings on June 24, St. John's Eve — witches, demons, devils, ghosts, wild creatures, all gathering to worship Satan on Mount Triglav near Kiev, which, according to Russian folklore, is the site for these dark revels. After a few attempts, Musorgsky finally settled on the form of a "tone picture" completed in 1867. After a scathing judgment by his fellow-Russian composer Mily Balakirev, Musorgsky tried to recycle the music in other compositions, but nothing ever came of these attempts. Enter Rimsky-Korsakov. A master orchestrator and musical colorist, he took all of the messy manuscripts and put them into the work we know and thrill to today. Witches' sabbaths have long had a place in literature, art, music, and folklore: we have Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Walpurgisnacht in Goethe's Faust, Goya's painting "Witches Sabbath," and, not to forget, Walt Disney's 1940 Fantasia, which effectively uses Musorgsky's score for one of its sections (and probably delivered more listeners for the piece than all the live performances ever produced in concert halls). The composer laid out the scenario: "Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of the spirits of darkness, followed by that of the god Chernabog. Glorification of Satan and celebration of the Black Mass. Witches' Sabbath, interrupted at the height of the orgies by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the spirits of darkness. Daybreak." Rimsky-Korsakov essentially recomposed the piece, making it less earthy and savage, and more polished, romantic, and perhaps a bit less "Russian." Slashing strings, stentorian brasses, pounding drums, all working themselves into a frightening fury and sending chills down our spines, till the innocent sound of church bells and a lone oboe send the demons back to their yawning lairs.