I first heard this piece of music used on a talking book, a version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It came in at the beginning and end of each chapter. The music is wonderfully suited to Mary’s tale of gothic horror, could almost have been written for it, though there is no direct connection.
“Night on Bald Mountain” was written by a Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, in 1867. Bald Mountain is a real place, a hill near Kiev, associated with witchcraft and demonic activity in Ukrainian mythology. There is an aircraft navigation beacon on the top these days, which detracts a little from the spookiness of the place, but the story of Lysa Hora (the Ukrainian name) suits the music.
A fortress was built into the hill, and it was used as a prison and execution ground in the twentieth century, and was the site of battles during the Second World War, which makes you think that if there were not ghosts haunting the place when Mussorgsky wrote his piece, there probably are now.
The piece is quite long, just over ten minutes, but it is really worth closing your eyes, turning up the volume and just going with it. It begins with high drama, a black mass, as witches assemble in the stormy dark and summon the Devil, and demons appear and whirl through the dark, in a dance of madness. But then we hear a distant church bell. Dawn has arrived, and slowly the demons disperse, and the mood shifts, lightens, and the piece ends with tranquility, new hope.
For me, “Night on Bald Mountain” captures the feeling of waking from a horrible nightmare, and lying safe in bed as the room gets brighter, just glad to be awake, glad that it is day.
This performance is by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, recorded in 1965.
- Artist: New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein
- LP Title: Polovetsian Dances And Other Russian Favorites
- Track: Side 2, Track 1 “Night on Bald Mountain”
- Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
- Label: CBS M 31844
- Manufactured in: United States
- Year: 1973 (original release 1965)