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Mussorgsky (1839-1881) - Night on the Bare Mountain (orig. version)

The wild man of the Mighty Handful, Modest Mussorgsky's legendary coarseness, something he perhaps picked up in his army days, is reflected in the correspondingly uncouth quality of his music. Unfortunately, though I doubt he'd see it this way, another habit picked up in the army, a predisposition to frequent alcoholic over-indulgence, resulted in his starting far more than he finished. Following his early (if not entirely surprising) demise, the commendably dedicated  Rimsky-Kosakov and Glazunov prepared completions of some of his best work. On the way, they made well-intentioned “improvements” to iron out what they perceived as flaws in Mussorgsky's drafts. Nowadays, with the experience of the Twentieth Century's music to draw on, we better appreciate what Mussorgsky was up to, and are busy putting the "flaws" back in. 

A Night on the Bare Mountain or, to give its proper title, Saint John's Night on the Bare Mountain, was inspired by a scene of a witches' sabbath in Gogol's story of St. John's Eve, and is a lurid melodrama following in the footsteps of Berlioz (finale of Symphonie Fantastique) and Liszt (Totentanz).  He wrote it in 1867, produced a second, choral version (1872) as his contribution to a projected collective opera, Mlada, and finally recast it in the form of a choral introduction for Act 3 of Sorochintsy Fair (1873). With no fewer than three versions “in the can”, there was no question of Rimsky-Korsakov “completing” his friend's work - his re-working (1908) of Mussorgsky's third version, into the popular piece we all know and love, was purely for the presumptuous purpose of “correction”. While we may abhor in principle the subsequent edition for Walt Disney's Fantasia, which rubbed in further salt by shovelling the melody of Schubert's Ave Maria into the framework of Rimsky-Korsakov's oh-so-cosy ending, we must remember that this final “insult” also brought Mussorgsky's name to the lips of more people than the other four versions put together. 

Rimsky-Korsakov's urbane manners and taste for tasteful “fairy-tales” dictated that his would be a sanitised, “PG-rated” version, complete with a cosy bedtime mug of cocoa. Mussorgsky's original is by comparison “X-rated”, and arguably the product of a nightmare following a bout of hard drinking and Gogol. If so, all its crudities and disfugurements come not from “incompetence” but from terrible experience. The key to Mussorgsky's structure lies in his programme: “ [1] An underground noise of inhuman voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness followed by an appearance of Satan and [2] his adoration. [3] A Black Mass. [4] Joyful dancing of the Witches' Sabbath. All of which is ended by the ringing of a church bell and the appearance of dawn”. 

Dramatically, there's no place for any nice, neat recapitulation: following his programme, Mussorgsky crams his hatful of horrors into a loose, four-part variational form. Following the relatively familiar sounds of the opening tumult [1], [2] is “heralded” by a sinister, bulging bass-drum roll, while [3] starts after a long pause, on eerie tremolandos. This “Black Mass” includes a parody of a “Russian Orthodox” chant (violas), which Rimsky-Korsakov presumably found inexcusably offensive, as he completely excised (or should I say “exorcised”?) it. The final section, [4], starts with a long downward slither, just one of a catalogue of spine-tingling grotesqueries. Moreover, all these nasty devils and hobgoblins retire, like Dracula to his “bed”, into the nether regions at only the very last bar, dispelled by the briefest hint of church bell and dawn - Mussorgsky denies us any Good Christian Consolation to ward off the bogey-men lurking in the gloomy shadows as we troop home.

© Paul Serotsky
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