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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Questions about Mussorgsky
and about living women composers,
fielded by deputy Classical Music Agony Aunt

Dear Alice
i have heard 2 distinctly different versions of moussorgsky's night on bare mountain, broadcast on classic fm. way beyond phrasing, speed, and voicing, the unfamiliar version even appears to be playing some sections in a major key where i am used to minor. are you able to cast any light on this, please?
Kenneth Willis

Well, actually, this is Aunt Kelly, being as Aunt Alice is off on a much-needed and well-deserved vacation. Never fear -- she'll be back in a couple of weeks. But -- actually, this is a question I think I can answer!

Dear Ken,
I don't know which two versions of St John's Night on the Bare Mountain (also known as Night on Bald Mountain -- or even Bare Mountain, depending on many things --) that you've heard, but there are at least five of them running around out there! (The word used in the Russian title usually means 'bald', but in this instance, it means a mountain bare of trees, thus making it easier for the witches holding their celebration on 23-24 June. It is also Midsummer's Eve, the night of the summer solstice, and a time for pagan celebrations of summer.)

Poor Modest Mussorgsky. All he ever wanted to do was be a composer, but his lack of proper education rather got in the way. Of course, he was writing what he wanted to write, as he (no doubt) heard it in his head, but it was rough-edged, and somewhat primitive in nature, although strongly nationalistic. Following the visual artists of the time, much of what he wrote was very real, even gritty. On the piano, that wasn't as evident as it was in pieces written for orchestra.

Ilya Repin's portrait of Modest Mussorgsky

Unfortunately, he became an alcoholic and died when he was just 42, leaving this vast treasure of very Russian music behind for more polished composers and orchestrators to 'prettify' or 'touch up' or 'change to suit themselves'. Or whatever. At any rate, Bare Mountain, referred to as 'crude and barbaric' by those who first heard it, is one that was given the beauty treatment by the truly great Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, some five years after Mussorgsky's death.

When Mussorgsky completed the work in 1867, he was devastated when his teacher, Balakirev, savaged it. The composer, unable to secure any performance of his work, put it away, and it was not discovered and published in the original form until 1968!!!

Many people of today grew up with yet another version -- the one devised by Leopold Stokowski for the 1940 Disney film Fantasia. Always a tinkerer, Stokie then revised his revision for concert appearances. (There is also a condensed version in the classic film The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy is rescued from the Witch's castle.)

More recently, Isao Tomita did a synthesizer version, which can be heard on his electronic rendition of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.

I hope this answers your question?
Cheerfully, Kelly

Ask Alice

Then there was this question:

Dear Alice,
Your answer to the JSB question was delightful! I wonder why I never see anything on living women composers? There are many -- ranging from Joan Tower to many others.
Bob Jordahl

Dear Mr Jordahl,
This is from Kelly, and I thank you for the question, as 'women composers' is a subject dear to my heart. As a once-upon-a-time musician, and constant listener, I think composers are vital to my existence. I'm sure they're equally important to lots of other folks as well. I wish there was more music being played by women composers, and have set about to do my little part. If the rest of you would just join in ... well!

Joan Tower is certainly among the most prominent composers of our time -- male or female! There are, of course, many others, as well. But considering history, I grieve for all those women who had the gift and were required by society to return it -- unopened. What a tragedy! Think of all we've missed for not having known about all the other Clara Schumanns or Fanny Mendelssohns who certainly did exist. For those women who were able to cast off their shackles, I can only cheer -- loudly!!

There are many wonderful women composers in the world today, and if only you'll please come back next week, I'll tell you about more of them then. Deal?


Copyright © 3 August 2007 Kelly Ferjutz, Cleveland USA

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