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Night on Bare Mountain by Mussorgsky

Modest Mussorgsky
Born: 1839      

Died: 1881
Nationality: Russian

Key facts:
* He was a composer in the Romantic period.
* He was part of a group of Russian composers called 'The Five' who worked to create a Russian Musical Identity.
* When he was a kid growing up, he learned Russian fairy tales and folk stories from the family Nanny.
Those stories appear in the music he wrote later on. 

Modest Mussorgsky was a composer born in Russia in the year 1839. He was an innovator of Russian music in the Romantic period. He strove to achieve a uniquely Russian musical identity, and was part of a group of Russian composers called 'The Five'. Many of Mussorgsky’s works were inspired by Russian history, folklore and fairy stories that were told to him by his Nanny when he was growing up.
Mussorgsky’s mother was a pianist and Modest had his first lessons with her. By the age of 10 he was good enough to go to a special music school and at 12 he started writing his own pieces. But Mussorgsky had a sad adult life with little fame and a lot of illness. Tragically his music became much more popular after his death.
 Some of his greatest accomplishments include the orchestral work Night on Bare Mountain, made famous when it appeared in Fantasia in 1940, and Pictures at an Exhibition, a collection of piano pieces which describe a set of 10 drawings and watercolour paintings.

Listen to a podcast about Mussorgsky:

Night on Bare Mountain
Watch a performance:

Night on the Bare Mountain is an example of a tone poem which is a short piece of orchestral music written to tell a story, mood or idea. The story that inspired this piece of music was an old Russian legend in which St John sees witches meeting on a mountain near Kiev. It's a wild and terrifying party with lots of dancing but when the church bell chimes 6am and the sun comes up the witches vanish.
Modest Mussorgsky wrote a number of different versions of this piece of music. However, when his music teacher told him it wasn't good enough, he put it aside for years. The score was revised by Rimsky-Korsakov, after Mussorgsky’s death, and was first performed in 1886 when Rimsky-Korsakov conducted it with great success. It is still a very popular orchestral piece.
The most famous version of Night On Bare Mountain comes from Walt Disney's 1940 animated film Fantasia.

Listen out for: 
*Contrasting dynamics

*A storm with thunder and lightning

*Witches laughing and casting spells

*The ‘party’ music that sounds like Russian folk music

*A calm ending that marks morning arriving. Can you hear distant church bells and a shepherd playing his pipe?

Find out more about Night on Bare Mountain by watching this Ten Pieces video:


The Romantic Period:
Last month we learned about Mozart who was composing music during the Classical period of Western Music History. Mussorgsky, who was born 83 years later, was composing during the Romantic period which took place in the 19th Century.
Composers from this period moved away from the formality of classical music and poured emotion, energy and passion into their pieces. Where Classical had reason, order and rules, Romantic was emotion, adventure and imagination. Music was used to evoke stories, places or events.

Romantic music has all features of music from the Classical period, but with much more of it! This means:

  • The tunes got longer and stronger.
  • The louds got louder and the quiets got quieter.
  • The mood changes were much bigger and happened more often.
  • The orchestras got bigger.

Famous composers from this period include:

  • Peter Tchaikovsky
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Clara Schumann
  • Fanny Mendelssohn

Find out more:

Further listening:
A beautiful sand animation set to Night on Bare Mountain:

Watch a youth orchestra play Night on Bare Mountain:


Listen to Night on Bare Mountain played on an organ:

Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky:

Ballet of the Unhatched Chick from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky:

Ballet of the Unhatched Chick played on the piano: