Night on Bald Mountain

Modest Mussorgsky

Born 21 March, 1839 in Karevo, Pskov, Russia

Died 28 March 1881 in St. Petersburg

Thanks to Walt Disney’s classic Fantasia (1940) and the disco movie Saturday Night Fever (1977), Musorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is one of the most familiar works in classical literature.  It was not always so.  Incredible as it seems today, this brilliant piece only had one performance in England before World War II!  Forever associated with the lightning bolts and spooky images of Disney’s animated realization, music lovers may be somewhat surprised at the confusing tale that surrounds Musorgsky’s original.  Night on Bald Mountain has the most convoluted history of any composition by Musorgsky.

Before he was even 20, the ambitious Musorgsky considered composing a three-act opera called St. John’s Eve, after Nikolai Gogol’s story; the next year he was writing to his friend Mily Balakirev about incidental music for a drama by Baron Mengden called The Witches.  By 1867, his plan had altered yet again.  The work was now cast as a fantasy for piano and orchestra.  Eventually, Musorgsky settled on the idea of an orchestral tone poem.  He returned to Night on Bald Mountain several times, never satisfied with its final form.  At his death, several versions survived.  His friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed the orchestration we hear; it was published in 1886.

To his friend Vladimir Nikolsky, Musorgsky had written in 1867:  “In form and character, my composition is Russian and original.  Its tone is hot and chaotic.”  Those words aptly describe the lurid program depicted in the music.  It opens with the chatter and gossip of a group of witches waiting for their ruler, Satan.  His cortege follows, then the witches enact an unholy glorification of Satan.  The piece concludes with a ghoulish witches’ sabbath.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration calls for woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bells, cymbals, bass drum, tam tam, harp, and strings.


In Seven Days, Piano Concerto,  Op. 25

Thomas Adès

Born 1 March 1971 in London

Britain’s Thomas Adès rocketed to fame in the early 1990s with a series of remarkable chamber works, simultaneously cultivating his reputation as a brilliant pianist. A London native, Adès studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and at Kings College Cambridge, where his composition teachers included Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. He was only 24 when his first opera, Powder Her Face, was commissioned and premiered by the Almeida Opera Festival. Before the millennium turned, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commissioned his Asyla, which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition – then the largest purse in classical music – in 2000. More than two decades later, Adès remains the youngest composer to have received that award.

Adès has fulfilled his early promise as a composer and pianist and has expanded his activities to include conducting. He served as Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1999 to 2008 and remains active on both sides of the Atlantic. He became the Boston Symphony’s first-ever Artistic Partner in 2016.

In Seven Days is a programmatic piano concerto, based on the first chapter of the Book of Genesis and the first verses of the second chapter. His composer’s note, written with his artistic collaborator Tal Rosner, an Israeli video artist, follows.

This piece is in seven continuous sections, following the Biblical story of Creation:

      1. Chaos – Light – Darkness
      2. Separation of the Waters into Sea and Sky – Reflection dance
      3. Land – Grass – Trees
      4. Stars – Sun – Moon
        Fugue: -5. Creatures of the Sea and Sky

     6. Creatures of the Land
      7. Contemplation

The story is set as a set of variations, reflecting the two-part structure of the story: Days 1, 2, and 3 are complemented by Days 4, 5, and 6. In Day 7 the Theme is presented in its simplest form.

The visuals also tell the story in an abstract way, using footage and photographs from the two places equally responsible for the work’s commission: Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the immediate surroundings of each.

In Seven Days was commissioned by Southbank Centre and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

© Thomas Adès and Tal Rosner

Adès’s music unfolds gradually, and without pause between sections. He begins with a quasi-minimalist motor rhythm. The piano’s entrance shifts both style and texture to something more jazz-inflected and contrapuntal. The interaction between the orchestra and the soloist seems like coexistence rather than conflict or collaboration. They move on parallel tracks, but in different sound worlds, as when the piano dwells in one extreme register, while the brass section (or upper woodwinds, or strings in harmonics) occupies the orchestral foreground. Adès and Rosner’s section titles are stimuli for the imagination, but the music functions equally well on its own. As the process of creation proceeds, what we hear grows increasingly complex: Adès populates the planet with a delirium of sound. The two fugal segments reflect the influence of Benjamin Britten, but ultimately Adès has a remarkable and individual voice.

The score calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling alto flute and piccolo), piccolo, 3 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, a large percussion complement requiring four players [vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, tubular bells, handbells, crash cymbals, 2 suspended cymbals, triangle, claves, bongos, cabaça, 3 hanging bells or bell plates, 3 large gongs, tam-tam, 4 rototoms, snare drum, and bass drum] and strings.



Symphony No. 4 in  F minor, Op. 36

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Born 7 May 1840 in Votkinsk, Viatka district, Russia

Died 6 November 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia


Crisis year

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is inextricably entwined with the emotional havoc in his life during the year 1877.  That was the year he began his remarkable correspondence with Nadejhda Filaretovna von Meck, the wealthy patron who was to provide both emotional sustenance (via her letters) and financial security to the composer for more than a decade.  1877 was also the year that Antonina Milyukova, a former student of Tchaikovsky’s, wrote to him with declarations of love and threats of suicide, inexplicably prompting him to propose to her, marry her, and leave her within a matter of months.  Desperate for emotional stability and wrestling with the torment of his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky sought refuge in the country, in his correspondence, and in composing.

Though the Fourth Symphony was begun before the abortive marriage,  its history cannot be separated from the anguish of those few unfortunate summer months.  More and more, Tchaikovsky turned to Mme. von Meck for spiritual guidance, as confidant, as muse.  The F-minor symphony was the first work he dedicated to her, and he called it “our symphony” in his letters to her.

A programme revealed in letters

Sometimes called the “Fate” symphony, the work earned its nickname from Tchaikovsky’s own description.  In one of his letters to Madame von Meck, he sketched a programme, identifying the opening brass fanfare as “Fate. . . the sword of Damocles that hangs over our head”, and describing the main theme as “feelings of depression and hopelessness.”  The second theme group he calls “dream world. . . escape from reality.”  How appallingly real all this must have seemed to him upon realizing the magnitude of the mistake he had made in marrying Antonina! A third theme combines musical elements from the other two and allows Tchaikovsky to develop his material into a colossal and emotionally intense opening movement.

The slow movement, Andantino in moda di canzone, features a mournful oboe solo, one of that instrument’s outstanding moments in symphonic literature. The composer wrote:

This is that melancholy feeling that comes in the evening when, weary from your labor, you are sitting alone, you take a book — but it falls from your hand. There comes a whole host of memories. It is both sad that so much is now past and gone, yet pleasant to recall your youth. You both regret the past, yet do not wish to begin your life again. Life has wearied you. It is pleasant to rest and look around.

For principal oboe, the solo is at once complex and simple. There is an impulse to go in a direction of complex phrasing but Tchaikovsky’s marking – semplice  – reminds the musician just play the simple and beautiful folk song straight ahead, as he intended. Tchaikovsky’s Andantino allows the tension of the first movement to abate, but it does not obliterate its impact. The passionate climax is a reminder of the tumult at the beginning of the symphony.

In many ways, the most successful and individual movement is the scherzo, which features the orchestra section by section:  first strings in a virtuoso pizzicato display, then woodwinds in lyric contrast, then boisterous brass.  After each section has its turn, the three are brilliantly interwoven to conclude the movement in anticipation of the brilliant finale.  Tchaikovsky was comparatively neutral on any programme for this movement, calling its individual sections “capricious arabesques. . . elusive images which rush past in the imagination when you have drunk a little wine and experience the first stage of intoxication.”

Triumphant finish

The finale explodes with a brilliant, festive flourish in F-major, immediately declaring a positive resolution to all the uncertainty, anguish, and doom of the symphony’s first half. We do not reach that satisfactory conclusion without additional struggle, however. The fate motive from the first movement recurs, a significant stormcloud on the horizon. Presently Tchaikovsky recalls passages from the second and third movements as well, intermingling them with the adapted strains of a Russian folk song. The quotations from the first three movements make the symphony a cyclic structure. Despite references to the “fate” motive, Tchaikovsky succeeds in erasing the clouds in a fiery, exciting conclusion. Scholars and musicians are still debating the extent to which the Fourth Symphony is an emotional autobiography for its composer. What is indisputable is the electric effect that Tchaikovsky’s music still has on audiences, nearly 125 years after it was first performed.


The Fourth Symphony is scored for woodwinds in pairs plus piccolo, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, and strings.