1867: Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain, age 28

Mr. Peabody Says:

If you are new to this piece, start with this:

Jose Serebrier/National Youth Orchestra of Spain

This is the best I found, really amazing.

Three versions:

There are three versions of this. The 1st is by Mussorgsky, as he wrote it, warts and all. The 2nd is by Rimsky-Korsakov, a very free arrangement of Mussorgsky’s music. The 3rd is by Stokowski, which is a tweaking of Rimsky-Korsakov’s version. I think it is important to hear the original 1st version before the others.

1st version: Valery Gergiev/BBC Symphony Orchestra

This is the original version by Mussorgsky. It wanders all over the place. There are great themes, but they do no correct well. Often the orchestration is clumsy. The Five had a problem with this, probably sensing that there was genius here, but also big problems.

2nd version: Daniel Nazareth/Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra

This is the Rimsky-Korsakov’s attempt to bring Mussorgsky’s music to the world, and he succeeded brilliantly. Rimsky-Korsakov was an incredible orchestrator, so he greatly improved the sound through many changes in who played what. You can hear many of the original themes of Mussorgsky, but it is radically changed. Rimsky-Korsakov struggled with this for a long time, and to me it’s obvious why. Mussorgsky had so many brilliant ideas, but if Rimsky-Korsakov had tried to keep all of them it probably would have failed dramatically. I wish he had found a way to keep even more of these brilliant ideas, but it may not have been possible.

3rd version: Jose Serebrier/ National Youth Orchestra of Spain

Jose Serebrier was a former Associate Conductor to Stokowski, and it really shows.

This is the Rimsky-Korsakov version with changes in the orchestration, but the music itself is the same. It is not longer or shorter, and none of the ideas are changed. So without being familiar with both at first you may not every hear a difference.

This Stokowski arrangement is with another conductor. It is a modern recording that allows us to hear the music better. I think the Stokowski performance is amazing, but his reocorded sound suffered terribly under Phase Four, a recording system that had huge problems. They were wonderful ideas but partially ruined by some really serious sound gaffs.

A long and complicated story:

Read about it here. Essentially it is the story of how Mussorgsky attempted to gain some amount of fame for music that was so incredibly new and revolutionary that it found very little support.

His mentor, Mily Balakirev, was horribly critical of Night on Bald Mountain, and this is the same man who often had a disastrous effect on Tchaikovksy. But in this case Balakirev was by no means entirely wrong.

Even The Five gave Mussorgsky little practical support for this, and it was not jealousy or small-mindedness. They knew that the piece, as he wrote it, would not work.

It was not until 1886, when Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his famous arrangement using Mussorgsky’s themes, that this composition became both famous and popular, and it is only recently that Mussorgsky’s original music has started to gain a bit favor, but the later versions remain much more popular.


  •  piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • Brass: 4 French horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
  • Percussion: timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, snare drum,
  • Strings

The first two versions use the same instruments, but Stokowki’s is a bit different. Since I don’t have his score, I don’t have the details.

5 thoughts on “1867: Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain, age 28

  1. Interesting. From a guy so young it sounds like the music of s composer in his later years. It’s complex, expansive, and foreboding. The sounds seems to fill the space. The youth orchestra really did a great job on this. Such talent.

  2. Very interesting. It’s impossible to do it justice in one short listen. I had all three open and spot-listened later on. Both Rimski-K, and Stokowski have a change of mood, a softness partly through, while Muss’s original seems to drive relentlessy from start to finish. I hear differences between Stok and R-K as well as similarities. I do not have the ears to hear change of instrumentation, but do hear differences.

    You referred to “the Five”. (should look that up 😉 )

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