St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's 'musical picture' Sadko (1867) share the distinction of being the first tone poems by Russian composers.
Although Mussorgsky was proud of this youthful effort, his mentor Miliy Balakirev refused to perform it. To salvage what he considered worthy material, Mussorgsky attempted to insert his Bare Mountain music, recast for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra, in two subsequent projects—the collaborative opera-ballet Mlada (1872) and the opera Sorochintsï Fair (1880).
However, the work achieved fame and is still best known in Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's edition, a 'fantasy for orchestra' titled A Night on the Bare Mountain (1886), composed five years after Mussorgsky's death:
"I need hardly remind the reader that the orchestral piece universally known as 'Mussorgsky's Night on the Bare Mountain' is an orchestral composition by Rimsky-Korsakov based on the later version of the Bare Mountain music which Mussorgsky prepared for Sorochintsï Fair." — Gerald Abraham, musicologist and an authority on Mussorgsky, 1945
A Night on the Bare Mountain was never performed in any form during Mussorgsky's lifetime. The Rimsky-Korsakov edition premiered in 1886 in Saint Petersburg, and has become a concert favorite. The original tone poem by Mussorgsky was not published until 1968, and although it is seldom heard, it is gradually gaining exposure and popularity.
Many listeners became acquainted with Night on Bald Mountain through the Disney animated film Fantasia (1940), which used an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov's edition made by Leopold Stokowski. An arrangement (by David Shire) of the composition was included in the tremendously successful original soundtrack of the movie Saturday Night Fever.
Note: The Russian word "лысая" (lïsaya) literally means "bald", but is used in this case figuratively for a mountain supposedly barren of trees. In the United Kingdom the title is rendered Night on the Bare Mountain.
More pieces by Mussorgsky
- Night on the Bare Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov)