-Writings on Disney History, along with insights on other films, animation, and cartoons
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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Night on Bald Mountain - by Guest Writer Tyler Fahr

Introducing our First Guest Writer
This blog, being titled “University of Walt Disney,” could infer the inclusion of more than one writer. What is a university if not a place for people to come together? And it is in that spirit that I welcome a new member of our “faculty.” Tyler Fahr is a graduate of UC Davis in Northern California, and currently works as a Guest Services Associate at the Walt Disney Family Museum. He is a passionate and knowledgeable Disney enthusiast, with a clear voice and a good knack for research. Now and in the future, he will be a regular contributor to this blog. I know you will enjoy his writing as much as I do.
         In this premiere piece of a guest writer on the blog, Tyler will share some fascinating history behind Fantasia’s famed penultimate sequence, “Night on Bald Mountain.” Enjoy and thanks for reading!

                                    -Lucas O. Seastrom, Blog Founder

“Night on Bald Mountain” – By Tyler Fahr

Image Source: disney.wikia.com

       Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) broke new ground with its revolutionary combination of stereophonic sound and brilliantly animated sequences.  Unlike its feature-length predecessors Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia did not follow a single storyline but instead showcased a combination of disparate scenes united in their use of classical music.  Some of these scenes were comical, others dramatic, and still others could even be considered educational, but one that stands out as a particularly poignant piece is the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment near the film’s conclusion.  The imagery here is surprisingly dark, especially with its religious undertone; however, the evolution and origin of Modest Mussorgsky’s intense music lends itself wholeheartedly to the dark subject matter of the animated visuals.

Modest Mussorgsky
Photo Source: en.wikipedia.org
            The macabre theme of Mussorgsky’s work proved apparent with its inception.  While a non-extant form of the piece for piano had been mentioned earlier by fellow Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and by Mussorgsky himself, the latter excitedly announced the completion of an early version of his famous piece on June 23rd of 1867. This date was St. John’s Eve, the night before the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist and an evening often associated with supernatural activity.  The piece was then called “St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain”, and was divided into four sections: the gathering of witches, Satan’s pageant, the glorification of Satan, and the Witches’ Sabbath. Mussorgsky references historical accounts of witches assembling on a barren mountain to await the arrival of Satan. After his arrival, they formed a circle around him and showered him with praise, at which time he would select the witches that pleased him most. This imagery calls to mind the grotesque scenes of eldritch creatures praising Fantasia’s demonic central figure, who also snatched up particular individuals from among his adherents; nevertheless, the evil figure at the center of the Sabbath is clearly meant to be the Devil himself in this unperformed version of the song, as opposed to the Black God Chernobog.
         Chernobog arrived in the music’s next iteration as part of the play Mlada in the early 1870s. This performance would combine ballet, operatic music, visually-stunning performance, and elements of Slavic folklore. The Director of Imperial Theatres asked several prominent composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, to compose the play’s four acts. Mussorgsky took on the second half of Act III, in which he planned to use his “Night on Bald Mount” for the appearance of Chernobog. The Black God of the pre-Christian Slavs would take Satan’s place as the focus of the Sabbath scene that the titular Mlada witnesses.  The Bald Mountain upon which the scene takes place is Mount Triglav, a name shared with the tallest peak in modern Slovenia. Although no longer carrying the moniker of Satan, so familiar to a Judeo-Christian audience, the piece looked to Slavic mythology for a fitting replacement, and found it in Chernobog.  Sadly, the play was never completed, and as Rimsky-Korsakov put it, “all of us turned to the work we had left for it; whatever we had composed for Mlada, found its way into other compositions, later.” “Night on Bald Mountain” had still yet to be performed, and would undergo further alteration.
         Mussorgsky would once again make use of his sinister piece in an opera of his own creation entitled The Fair at Sorochintsy in the late 1870s. Between Act II and III, an intermezzo called “The Dream of a Peasant Lad” would use the music of “Night on Bald Mountain.”  A young peasant has a dream that appears quite similar to the corresponding scene in Mlada, in which Chernobog is again praised at a Witches’ Sabbath. In this instance, Mussorgsky made an important addition: the conclusion of the piece with church bells. The sound of the bells serves to dispel these figures of darkness as the peasant lad awakens from his dream.  Mussorgsky made yet another attempt to improve upon his piece, yet once again the work remained unfinished, this time because of Mussorgsky’s death in 1881.
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov
Photo Source: russiapedia.rt.com
            Rimsky-Korsakov took it upon himself to finally present his friend’s “Night on Bald Mountain” to the public.  His would be an instrumental piece largely based on “The Dream of a Peasant Lad” version, with as few alterations as possible. After some years of struggle, Rimsky-Korsakov completed the work and conducted the first performance on October 15th of 1886 at a Russian Symphony Concert in Kononoff Hall at Saint Petersburg. As the conductor himself put it, the piece was “demanded again and again with unanimity.” Finally, a version of Mussorgsky’s long-stagnant musical piece had made its way to the public, with much praise, even if it lacked the accompanying imagery of the Witches’ Sabbath.  Over half a century later, Leopold Stokowski would adapt Rimsky-Korsakov’s interpretation of the work to enhance the animated scenes of Fantasia that brought Mussorgsky’s imaginings to cinemas across the globe.
         Fantasia was first marketed as a concert feature, and like any other concert, it came with a program.  This guide broke the film down into its respective segments, stating that “no music approaches ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ in the feel of sheer, elemental terror.” The program goes on to label the Bald Mountain as a particular peak near Kiev (possibly referring to Lysa Hora, a Ukrainian hill traditionally associated with witch gatherings). It states that this summit was where the adherents of evil would gather to pay homage to Tchernobog, the Black God. This then is the muscular deity that viewers saw on the silver screen.  While his name has seen various spellings (the Disney iteration has taken on the spelling Chernabog in more recent times), this ancient Slavic god fills much the same purpose as he did is Mussorgsky’s early version of “Night on Bald Mountain.”
Lysa Hora in Kiev, much less barren today than the name suggests.
Photo Source: johnnydepp-zone.com
         Through the art of Albert Hurter, the design of Kay Nielsen, and the animation of Vladimir Tytla, the mighty Chernabog aptly represents the intensity of Mussorgsky. Tytla was born of Ukrainian immigrant parents, so may very well have been aware of folkloric tales like the Lysa Hora. Fantasia Master of Ceremonies Deems Taylor also refers to Chernabog as Satan, and the deity certainly bears traits commonly associated with the Devil, such as horns and a relationship with fire. As the segment opens, Chernabog unfolds his bat-like wings to reveal that he is the peak of the Bald Mountain itself.  He then summons all manner of unholy apparitions, including animated skeletons, grotesque demons, harpies, shrouded wraiths, warrior ghosts, and the spirits of witches. 
A witch in Fantasia flies in from the right.
Image Source: www.pinterest.com
Many of the earthbound monsters writhe and dance, not only to the sounds of the orchestra, but also seemingly in worship of the Black God.  Chernabog seems to treat his worshippers as little more than playthings, casting them into the flames and altering their appearance.  This unsettling scene of revelry compliments Mussorgsky’s musical piece quite well, with the original images of a Witches’ Sabbath not too difficult to imagine.  The scene concludes with church bells and the rising sun putting an end to the dark frolicking.  The ringing seems to cause Chernabog physical pain as the specters return to their graves.  Much like Mussorgsky’s original ending to the peasant lad’s dream, the bells spell the end of Chernabog’s Sabbath, and provide a fitting transition into the more calming notes of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” 
The Disney studio’s animation scenes did not stray far from Mussorgsky’s envisioned Sabbath scene. The work of the various artists and musicians creating this portion of Fantasia have allowed Mussorgsky’s Chernobog to live on and conduct his night of evil with “Night on Bald Mountain” playing in the background.  A bit of Slavic folklore mixed with a hint of Judeo-Christian imagery culminated in a segment that has thrilled and shocked audiences for decades, and made Chernabog a chilling addition to Walt Disney’s cast of characters.  

-John Culhane, Walt Disney’s Fantasia, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1999).
-Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, Modest Mussorgsky: His Life and Works, (Fair Lawn: Essential Books, -1956).
-Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, trans. Judah Joffe (New York: Knopf, 1928).
-Walt Disney Presents Fantasia, “Night on Bald Mountain”, “Cowan Collection: Animation and Comic Art”, added on August 9, 2009, http://cowancollectionanimation.blogspot.com/2009/08/fantasia-1940-series-1940-program.html.

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