Although written nearly 150 years ago, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” feels incredibly modern. Mussorgsky composed the piece – about a witches’ Sabbath and Satan worship on St. John’s Eve – over 12 sleepless days in 1860, finishing on St. John’s Eve itself. In a letter to Vladimir Nikolsky, he said of the work:
“[I]t 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… grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.”
The work is based on a short story, St. John’s Eve by Nikolai Gogol. St. John’s Day (June 24th) was originally a pagan celebration of the summer solstice. Like many pagan holidays, it was incorporated into the Christian calendar, and now marks the birth of John the Baptist. St. John’s Eve is traditionally celebrated with bonfires, though modern celebrations often substitute fireworks. Because of a historical belief in some parts of the world that evil spirits and demons roam free on this night, it is sometimes compared to Halloween.
Mussorgsky modified “Night on Bald Mountain” several times during his life, which was unfortunately brief. He suffered from dipsomania, a form of alcoholism characterized by bouts of excessive cravings for alcohol. In 1865, following his mother’s death, he began to go on drinking binges. He would disappear for days or weeks at a time, returning physically ill.
Within just a few years, Mussorgsky was experiencing “fits of madness.” After four seizures in rapid succession, he was moved to a hospital. Although he seemed to rally, it turned out he had bribed an orderly to bring him cognac. He died a month later, at the age of 42. The famous red-nosed portrait of the composer was painted by Ilya Repin just one week before Mussorgsky’s death.
In 1886, Mussorgsky’s friend and fellow composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, did a new arrangement of “Night on Bald Mountain.” Rimsky-Korsakov (“Flight of the Bumblebee”) conducted the premiere himself. Although many people know the work because of the 1940 Walt Disney Film Fantasia, the version in that film — a specially commissioned arrangement by Leopold Stokowski — is seldom performed.