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Saturday, 11th January 2020: Russian Programme

St Botolph’s Church, Colchester


Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain

  Shostakovich: Symphony no 9

Mussorgsky (orchestrated by Chris Phelps): Pictures at an Exhibition

Tickets are £15.  Under 25s free.

Tickets may be purchased at the door or reserved in advance by either ‘phoning 01206 271128 or emailing

The Colchester Symphony Orchestra, in its Russian programme, is playing two of Mussorgsky’s most famous works – ‘ A Night on the Bare Mountain’ and ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’.  

In a letter to Vladimir Nikolsky, Mussorgsky wrote ‘‘The Witches’ – a vulgar name or nickname, as it were, for my piece – is actually  St. John’s Night on Bald Mountain, so it’s a bagatelle with a name, as you see. Unless my memory deceives me, witches used to gather on this mountain, talk scandal, and wait for their chief Satan. After his arrival, they form a circle around the throne on which the chief, in the form of a giant goat, has seated himself, and they glorify him. When Satan has reached enough of a rage thanks to the witches’ glorification, he gives the sign for the Sabbath to begin and then picks himself out the witches who have taken his fancy.’  Mussorgsky wrote several versions of this but his mentor Mili Balakirev on seeing the score refused to allow it to be performed.  In 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov drew upon the various versions and rewrote the piece.  The witches’ Sabbath, a wild party, is interrupted at its height by the church bell chiming 6am – at daybreak the witches vanish!

In common with ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ was neither performed nor published before Mussorgsky’s death in 1881. ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ was inspired by Mussorgsky’s visit to an art exhibition of the artist Viktor Hartmann (his friend), who had died at the age of 39.  Each movement represents either one of the drawings or artworks on display, or pictures shown privately to Mussorgsky by the artist.  The work was originally composed for piano.  For our concert we will be playing Chris Phelps’ orchestration of the piano work.  Listen out for the musical Promenade where the composer depicts himself walking from one picture to the next.

Shostakovich wrote his 9th Symphony in 1945.  It had been intended to commemorate the Soviet victory over Germany in the Second World War and also had the significance of comparison with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  Although he had promised to compose music that would glorify Stalin’s regime, Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony is a classically-oriented work totally devoid of grandeur. The tactic of promising to compose the music that the regime wanted but actually writing something very different was one that the composer used often.  Shortly after its premiere, the Soviet authorities banned the performance of the Symphony.  However, this symphony sparkles with wit and mockery. It seldom becomes too serious.  

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