Imagine if Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps had come out 30 years earlier, in reactionary, Tsarist Russia rather than cosmopolitan, jaded Paris!
"Night on Bald Mountain" is the name we usually give to an orchestral work you have almost certainly heard, Modest Mussorgsky's depiction of a wild nocturnal witches' celebration. One of the wonderful things about this work is that there are two versions to choose from: The original, written by Mussorgsky himself, and a later reorchestration by his friend Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. It is the latter version you almost always hear (such as in Walt Disney's Fantasia), but the original is worth listening to.
In 1867, Modest Mussorgsky was dismissed from the Russian civil service for drunkenness, and finding time on his hands, he decided to try making a living as a composer, beginning work on an opera based upon Nikolai Gogol's play St. John's Eve. As part of this effort, he produced a work whose title can be roughly translated as "St. John's Eve on Bare Mountain". According to Mussorgsky's notes, he actually finished the work on St. John's Eve, June 23.
Although Mussorgsky had some (cough) modest success as a composer during his lifetime, most of his work remained unpublished when he died in 1881 from the complications of his alcoholism. Although the opera Sorochintsy Fair was never finished, Rimsky-Korsakov took on the task of sorting out his friend's notes. But in the process, something happened: Rimsky-Korsakov revised everything he touched. In the case of "Night on Bare Mountain", he re-orchestrated the entire work, cutting much, "tightening" it, and perhaps tailoring it to the sensibilities of late 19th-Century Russian aristocrats. This version premiered in 1886.
How to compare the two versions? They begin with the same, blaring trumpets with woodwinds and strings suggesting immense gusts of wind, followed by the Russian folksong-derived main theme. But from that point on, the two versions are completely different. Although you will hear snatches of music that sound similar, different instruments are emphasized in the corresponding segments. Rimsky-Korsakov's rewrite can be assigned the label "symphonic poem" without hesitation: It is more lyrical, and develops like a story with a clear beginning, middle, and ending (which R-K added to banish the evil spirits at sunrise, complete with church bells ringing).
The original version is more difficult to label with one of the standard symphonic forms. It contains a section or two you may find long-winded. But what it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in musical color and drama. It is demented, wild, and often fierce, and makes it much easier to imagine Tchemobog cavorting with Baba Yaga and her sisters (and her chicken-footed hut) around a bonfire. The rewrite presents a more conservative, bourgeois aesthetic.
Years ago, when I first heard the work, I had imagined a stormy night on top of a crag, with howling winds and crashing trees, but certainly witch-free. Perhaps I imagined a wolf, or a marmot or two cowering in a burrow, weathering the storm. I blame this on Rimsky-Korsakov's milder orchestration. For this reason, you may gather, I prefer the original version.
It's more difficult to find recordings of Mussorgsky's original "St. John's Night on Bare Mountain" than of Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic poem. But of all Rimsky-Korsakov's rewrites, this is the one work where you have a good chance of hearing the original version. I was fortunate enough to find a CD with both versions, an inexpensive Naxos recording featuring the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine led by Theodore Kuchar. Not the greatest recording, and I've heard better renditions on the radio. Still, it's nice to be able to put the two side by side.