Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain

Portrait of the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (Toropets, 1839- Saint Petersburg, 1881), by Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Many people have grown accustomed to hearing Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain during Halloween - it's definitely a dark piece of music. Rightfully so, the inspiration behind Night on Bald Mountain is not one of light nature. With a short story by the Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, in which witches would gather on Bald Mountain and hold sabbath, in mind, Mussorgsky was able to create a dreadfully haunting piece of music.

Notable Performances of Night on Bald Mountain

  • Modest Mussorgsky’s Original Arrangement (rarely performed)
    Claudio Abbado, Berlinner Philharmoniker
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s Arrangement (performed most frequently)
    Leonard Bernstein, The New York Philharmonic (1987) 
  • Leopold Stokowski’s Arrangement (performed in Disney’s Fantasia)
    Night On Bald Mountain - Disney’s Fantasia, Theatrical Cut (1941) 

The History of Night on Bald Mountain

In 1866, Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, conceived the idea to write a tone poem inspired by Russian lore and literature. Though the piece has several known names including Night on Bald Mountain  & Night on Bare Mountain, Mussorgsky titled his work St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain and centered its theme on the witches’ sabbath that occurred on the eve of Kupala Night (The Feast of St. John the Baptist). According to Mussorgsky’s score, he began writing the music on June 12, 1867, and finished it on June 23, 1867 (the eve of St. John’s Day). Along with Sadko (listen to Sadko on YouTube), a piece written by his fellow composer (and member of those known as “The Five”), Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Night on Bald Mountain was among the first tone poems ever written by a Russian composer.

When Mussorgsky was ready for Night on Bald Mountain to be performed, he presented it to Milly Balakirev (1837-1910), a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who advocated musical nationality. Balakirev was less than impressed with the work and refused to perform it. Mussorgsky, who once stated after finishing the score that he’d never revise it, went back to the drawing board to make changes. He jotted down a few ideas with intentions to adapt the music within his opera-ballet Mlada and his operaThe Fair at Sorochyntsi, but they never came to fruition.

Night on Bald Mountain was finally given a voice on October 18, 1886 (five year’s after Mussorgsky’s death). Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and a few other friends took it upon themselves to piece together most, if not all, of Mussorgsky’s unfinished compositions and publish them as a set of completed works so that they could remain in the public’s musical repertoire. Rimsky-Korsakov, who said that Mussorgsky severely neglected the piece, spent two years sifting through all of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain manuscripts (including the notes and musical drafts he’d made when trying to rework the piece to fit within the two operas), making changes like removing bars, correcting notes, and adjusting rhythms so that it would be presentable and palatable when published. He tried to do it in a way that would keep Mussorgsky’s intent, thematic ideas, and compositional style intact. Rimsky-Korsakov conducted Night on Bald Mountain at its world premiere in St. Petersburg’s Kononov Hall. It was a great success and has become an audience favorite to this day.

Night on Bald Mountain and Disney’s Fantasia

Without having a copy of Mussorgsky’s original Night on Bald Mountain score, composer Leopold Stokowski used Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement and relied solely on his own understanding of Mussorgsky. Having conducted the USA premiere of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov as well as having produced a symphonic synthesis of it for concert performances, Stokowski felt confident in his ability to arrange Night on Bald Mountain for Disney’s 1940 film, Fantasia (Disney’s third animated feature film). Due to the high-tech recording made available to Walt Disney and his crew, Fantasia became the first film to be shown in stereophonic sound.

Night on Bald Mountain in TV and Movies

According to IMDb, here are just a handful of television shows and movies to use Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain:

  • 3rd Rock From the Sun
  • Animaniacs
  • Asylum
  • Eddsworld
  • Jabberwocky
  • Nostalgia Critic
  • The Ren & Stimpy Show
  • Rocko’s Modern Life
  • The Simpsons
  • Stardust Memories
  • Tiny Toons
  • Weekend at Bernie’s
  • Win Ben Stein’s Money