Night on Bald Mountain
Modest Mussorgsky 1839–1881
Modest Mussorgsky was born near St. Petersburg into an aristocratic Russian family and was trained in piano at the age of six. At the age of thirteen, he enrolled in the Cadet School of the Guards, with the intent of following the family tradition in the military. Mussorgsky continued to cultivate his musical interests while at the school, playing dances for his fellow cadets and impressing them with his own improvisations.
After successfully graduating from the Cadet School, Mussorgsky served at a military hospital in St. Petersburg where he met Alexander Borodin, another Russian composer with whom he would later be associated as part of “The Five.” Two years later, while under the wing of composer Mily Balakirev, Mussorgsky resigned his military commission to devote himself entirely to music.
Mussorgsky’s works are stylistically Romantic and derive significantly from Russian musical themes. His major works include the opera Boris Godunov, Pictures at an Exhibition, Night on Bald Mountain, and Songs and Dances of Death among others. Mussorgsky suffered from alcoholism, which ultimately led to his demise. He was unable to support himself and died shortly after suffering four seizures at the age of 42.
Night on Bald Mountain is a tone poem that was inspired by Russian legends, and is one of Mussorgsky’s most celebrated works. He finished the piece on St. John’s Eve (June 23, 1867) and thus named it St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. Mussorgsky told a friend that it “is, in form and character, Russian and original; and I want to feel sure that it is thoroughly in keeping with historic truth and Russian folk tradition.” Regrettably, the piece was never performed while Mussorgsky was alive. After his death, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov reconstructed the work from the three versions Mussorgsky composed, to create the piece as we hear it today. The piece is described by Rimsky-Korsakov as follows:
Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the Chernobog (the “Black God”).
Glorification of Chernobog and celebration of the Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath. At the height of the orgy, the bell of the little village church is heard from afar.
The Spirits of Darkness are dispersed. Daybreak.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
(Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun)
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
Debussy was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France to a china shop owner and a seamstress, and was the eldest of five children. He began piano lessons at the age of seven, which were paid for by his aunt. Though clearly talented, Debussy had a style all his own from the start. He challenged the established musical norms and favored dissonances and intervals that were frowned upon.
Along with Maurice Ravel, Debussy was one of the most prominent figures working within the field of impressionist music, and a crucial figure in the transition to the modern era in Western music. His music often reflected mood and color, and is known for not forming around one key or pitch. Debussy was heavily influenced by the French symbolist movement, an art movement from the 1880s that was interested in the esoteric and indefinite and rejected naturalism and realism. Debussy’s major works include La Mer, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Clair de Lune, and Syrinx.
Inspired by the poem L’après-midi d’un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a symphonic poem that is considered the birth of modern music. About his composition Debussy wrote, “The music of this prelude is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon. Then, tired of pursuing the timorous flight of nymphs and naiads, he succumbs to intoxicating sleep, in which he can finally realize his dreams of possession in universal Nature.” The opening flute solo is one of the most famous passages in musical modernism, consisting of a chromatic descent to a tritone below the original pitch, and the subsequent ascent. The work is called a prelude because Debussy intended to write a suite of three movements – Prelude, Interlude, and Final Paraphrase – but the last two were never composed.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Hector Berlioz was a French Romantic composer, best known for his compositions Symphonie Fantastique, Grande messe des morts (Requiem), and La damnation de Faust. He made significant contributions to the modern orchestra with his Treatise on Instrumentation, and was in demand as a conductor and composer. As a conductor, he performed several concerts with more than 1,000 musicians. He was well educated and was training to be a physician when he abandoned his studies and turned to music. He traveled widely and met kings and princes, as well as many of his international contemporaries. He influenced Wagner, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liszt and others. Berlioz had a keen affection for literature, and many of his best compositions were inspired by literary works. For Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz was inspired in part by Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
Symphonie Fantastique is an important representative piece of the early Romantic period, and is a piece of program music which tells the story of “an artist gifted with a lively imagination” who has “poisoned himself with opium” in the “depths of despair” because of “hopeless love.” Berlioz rejected writing the very symmetrical melodies then in academic fashion, and instead looked for melodies which were, “so intense in every note, as to defy normal harmonization,” as Robert Schumann put it. His use of the idée fixe in the Symphonie Fantastique foreshadows the leitmotif heard in later musical periods.
Berlioz’s Program Notes
I. Rêveries – Passions (Reveries – Passions)
The author imagines that a young vibrant musician, afflicted by the sickness of spirit which a famous writer has called the wave of passions [la vague des passions], sees for the first time a woman who unites all the charms of the ideal person his imagination was dreaming of, and falls desperately in love with her. By a strange anomaly, the beloved image never presents itself to the artist’s mind without being associated with a musical idea, in which he recognises a certain quality of passion, but endowed with the nobility and shyness which he credits to the object of his love. This melodic image and its model keep haunting him ceaselessly like a double idée fixe. This explains the constant recurrence in all the movements of the symphony of the melody which launches the first allegro. The transitions from this state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by occasional upsurges of aimless joy, to delirious passion, with its outbursts of fury and jealousy, its returns of tenderness, its tears, its religious consolations – all this forms the subject of the first movement.
II. Un bal (A Ball)
The artist finds himself in the most diverse situations in life, in the tumult of a festive party, in the peaceful contemplation of the beautiful sights of nature, yet everywhere, whether in town or in the countryside, the beloved image keeps haunting him and throws his spirit into confusion.
III. Scène aux champs (Scene in the Fields)
One evening in the countryside he hears two shepherds in the distance dialoguing with their ‘ranz des vaches’; this pastoral duet, the setting, the gentle rustling of the trees in the wind, some causes for hope that he has recently conceived, all conspire to restore to his heart an unaccustomed feeling of calm and to give to his thoughts a happier colouring. He broods on his loneliness, and hopes that soon he will no longer be on his own… But what if she betrayed him! This mingled hope and fear, these ideas of happiness, disturbed by dark premonitions, form the subject of the adagio. At the end one of the shepherds resumes his ‘ranz des vaches’; the other one no longer answers. Distant sound of thunder… solitude… silence …
IV. Marche au supplice (March to the Scaffold)
Convinced that his love is unappreciated, the artist poisons himself with opium. The dose of narcotic, while too weak to cause his death, plunges him into a heavy sleep accompanied by the strangest of visions. He dreams that he has killed his beloved, that he is condemned, led to the scaffold and is witnessing his own execution. As he cries for forgiveness the effects of the narcotic set in. He wants to hide but he cannot so he watches as an onlooker as he dies. The procession advances to the sound of a march that is sometimes sombre and wild, and sometimes brilliant and solemn, in which a dull sound of heavy footsteps follows without transition the loudest outbursts. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe reappear like a final thought of love interrupted by the fatal blow when his head bounced down the steps.
V. Songe d’une nuit de sabbat (Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath)
He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath… Roar of delight at her arrival… She joins the diabolical orgy… The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies Irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies Irae.
Compiled and edited by Joanna D. Huling