Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Night on a Bare Mountain
Arranged and Orchestrated by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1886)


Modest Mussorgsky was born into a wealthy, land-owning, family on the 29th March 1839. At the age of ten he was sent to the elite St Peter's School in Petersburg where, among other things, he studied the piano with Anton Gerke, and wrote a piano piece titled "Porte-enseigne Polka" which was published at his father's expense. At the age of 13 he entered the Cadet School of the Guards in St Petersburg, following in his families' military tradition. This may have marked the beginning of his later decline into alcoholism. The director of the institute, General Sutgof encouraged his pupils to indulge freely in heavy drinking. In addition to his military training he continued to advance as a pianist, and played regularly at social occasions. He graduated in 1856, and received a commission with the Preobrazhensky Regiment, the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard. In the following years he became a familiar figure in the St. Petersburg musical circles, meeting the aspiring composer C├ęsar Cui, who was a fellow officer, Alexander Borodin a professor of Chemistry, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov a naval officer and Mily Balakirev, a champion of the emerging nationalist school of musical composition. These five became known as the "mighty handful". In 1858 he resigned his commission to devote himself to full time musical study, and at the same time he began making plans for an opera based on a short story - St. John's Eve - by Nicolai Gogol. By 1860 this had developed into a project to write an opera describing a witches' sabbath. However, progress was slow as Mussorgsky was beginning to become more dependent on alcohol. It was not until 1866 that he began to write his orchestral tone poem called St John's eve on a bare mountain. The work was completed on the 23rd June 1867, and was one of the first Russian orchestral tone poems. It was in four parts called the Assembly of the witches, Satan's cortege, Black Mass and Sabbath.

However, Mussorgsky had no success in getting it performed. His mentor Mily Balakirev refused to support it, and is reputed to have written several insulting statements, such as "what rubbish", on the score he had been given. The work was consigned to the dustbin by its critics. It was not performed until 1932 and remained unpublished until 1968. Mussorgsky reused some of the music in later operatic projects: Mlada written in 1872 and Sorochinsky Fair, his last completed opera, in 1880. Five years after Mussorgsky's death Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov made a new arrangement of the piece. This version was first performed in 1886 and was an immediate and lasting success. Rimsky clearly found revising Night on a Bare Mountain a very difficult task. In his memoirs he wrote "With Mussorgsky's material as a basis, I decided to create an instrumental piece by retaining all of the author's best and coherent material, adding the fewest possible interpolations of my own. It was necessary to create a form in which Mussorgsky's ideas would be expressed in the best fashion. It was a difficult task, and a satisfactory solution baffled me for two years."

The careers of Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov began with their common interest in championing a new nationalist Russian school of composition, but soon became very different. Rimsky obtained a professorship at the prestigious St. Petersburg conservatoire, where he built an international reputation in musical composition, numbering Stravinsky and Prokofiev in his pupils. His works were widely performed, and the best of them have remained in the repertoire to the present day. Mussorgsky, in contrast, had very little success. His opera Boris Godunov was given a few performances, but many of his works were never performed. As the years went by he became more dependent on alcohol, less coherent, and less capable of working. He disliked Rimsky's compositions thinking them contrived and over intellectual. He even went as far as calling him "that soulless traitor". However, after his early death from alcohol poisoning, it was the soulless traitor that recognised his genius and established his place in history by making many important arrangements of his works. Along with Night on a Bare Mountain, the operas Boris Godunov and Khovanschina were made famous by Rimsky's versions. It was a true combination of geniuses. Mussorgsky had brilliant, original and expressive musical insights seeking out the soul of Russia, but he lacked the skill to work them out successfully. Rimsky, for all his intellectual and practical musical ability, often felt insecure about his own compositions and suffered from composers block. He recognised Mussorgsky's genius, and worked hard to present it to the world.

Night on a Bare Mountain was performed by the Portobello Orchestra on the 6th April 2019, conducted by Sam Jones.

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