Four versions of Modest Mussorgsky’s
St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain

Modest Mussorgsky composed his tone poem St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, which describes the wildness of a witches’ sabbath, in a hurry in 1867. It was written in only twelve days (and nights) and finished on St. John’s Eve. He was probably excited since he’d been hatching on the idea of a witches’ sabbath for a long time, and it was also his largest purely orchestral work to date, but unfortunately also the last. Because of harsh criticism from his mentor the score was put aside and largely forgotten, except by Mussorgsky, who didn’t lose faith in the work and incorporated it in several projects throughout his life. The one surviving rewriting is from his opera The Fair at Sorochintsï, which he was working on until his death in 1881 and didn’t finish. It’s a comic opera about love, intricacies, and superstition. The Night on Bare Mountain-music accompanies a scene named Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad, where the protagonist falls asleep and dreams about—guess what—a witches’ sabbath. Mussorgsky hadn’t got around to orchestrate this scene—the score is for piano and choir only.

The radical harmonies in Mussorgsky’s music caused his composer-friends to “fix” much of his music in order to get it accepted for the concert hall. The original 1867-version of NoBM was presumably unknown to Rimsky-Korsakov when he took on the task of orchestrating the Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad-version. He removed, added and restructured whatever he found appropriate—and that wasn’t little. He completed the butchering in 1886 and the work was published the same year, as A Night on the Bare Mountain. It was an instant success and is today the version known by everyone.

I’ve never found a recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s version that I really like, and I’ve gradually realized it’s because I’m not content with his arrangement. The first time I heard it I found the beginning to be quite cool, but my interest soon faded further into the work. It sounds too controlled and not at all like a witches’ sabbath. However, in the last part when all the spectacle is over, there’s a beautifully sombre flute solo which ends the piece with the high qualith it starts with.

When I finally tracked down and listened to a recording of the original 1867-version it was a revelation. It’s got a meatier orchestration and sounds meaner right from the beginning. There’s the right element of chaos to describe a witches’ sabbath. If I ever attend one I’m sure this is how it will sound like.

What about the version of NoBM from the unfinished opera The Fair at Sorochintsï? The opera has been completed by several, but the only one keeping the Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad-scene was finished in 1930 by the Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin and published in 1934. Shebalin’s orchestration of NoBM is interesting because it’s the only surviving version by Mussorgsky with the flute solo at the end—and it’s also got a choir! However, Shebalin probably didn’t see the score of the original 1867-version since the orchestration is even tamer than in the Rimsky-Korsakov-version. This can of course have been a deliberate decision in order to make more space for the choir. Anyway, Shebalin’s orchestration is interesting to listen to and I find it more entertaining than Rimsky-Korsakov’s effort.

Another arrangement is by the American conductor Leopold Stokowski, made for Disney’s animated feature Fantasia (1940). Stokowski too didn’t know the original 1867-version, so he largely uses Rimsky-Korsakov’s version for content and form but tries to imitate Mussorgsky’s orchestrational style, in order to make it wilder and more authentic. It does sound wilder, but to me the overall impression is too close to Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement.

Although the score of the 1867-version was forgotten, it was not lost; it is claimed to have been premiered in England in 1932 or 1933. What’s more certain, is that it was performed in Moscow in 1968 and published the same year. Finally, 101 years after it was written, the world could hear the work as it was supposed to sound. And it sounds good!

Although here’s much to choose from, I’m not completely satisfied with any of the versions mentioned. And I don’t know about other versions that differs much from these. Of course, the original 1867-version sounds great and is to my ears the best alternative, but I miss the quiet ending of the other versions and it’s very nice to have a choir as a part of the work. Also, Shebalin’s orchestration has got some nice touches not found in any of the other alternatives. I think the ultimate version to me would be one which uses Mussorgsky’s original score to the Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad with an orchestration that’s as close as possible to the 1867-version. Then you get both a choir, a quiet ending, and a kick-ass orchestration.

It’s clarifying to quote a note about translation of the word “bare” from Russian, taken from Wikipedia’s article “Night on Bald Mountain”: “The Russian word “лысая” (lïsaya) literally means “bald”, but is used in this case figuratively for a mountain supposedly barren of trees. Therefore, many experts officially title the piece A Night on the Bare Mountain, even if they commonly refer to it as Night on Bald Mountain.”

If you like the version of NoBM with a choir, maybe you’ll also like an arrangement by the American conductor Igor Buketoff of Tchaikovsky’s 1812-overture, where a choir is added in appropriate places. If you want something more quiet I suggest you listen to Robert Shaw’s choral arrangement of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, titled Agnus Dei.

Also interesting is that Sibelius’ success with Finlandia lead him to arrange the quiet middle part of the tone poem into a stand-alone choral hymn. The choral hymn is sometimes incorporated into the original tone poem, which makes it sound even more patriotic.

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