Climb Every Mountain. And Hill.
Composers as different stylistically as Franz Liszt and Alan Hovhaness, as Richard Strauss and Ralph Vaughan Williams, could all agree on one thing at least: Mountains. They, and a host of other composers, wrote music about mountains and mountain life, mountain fears and mountain beauty.
One of the most well-known mountain-themed pieces has to be Modest Mussorgsky’s St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain, which, according to old Russian legend, was a mysterious night for a gathering of witches. A shortened version of the name, Night on Bald Mountain, (also referred to as Night on Bare Mountain, depending on the translation) was used early on. The dark and dramatic 1867 piece was said to have been written in just one night. It was never performed during Mussorgsky’s lifetime. Five years after Mussorgsky’s death, fellow countryman Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a new concert version of the piece, which he described as a “fantasy for orchestra,” and it’s the version that popularized the piece.
It was a second version decades later, however, that helped the piece achieve greater world-wide fame. Conductor Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement for the 1940 Disney movie Fantasia is what introduced the piece to millions of movie goers around the world. His protégé, conductor José Serebrier, has wonderful recordings of it with at least 3 different professional orchestras, but I think this version with student musicians really captures Stokowski’s passion for the piece:
The next time you watch The Wizard of Oz, listen closely towards the end of it. When the Wicked Witch pursues Dorothy and her traveling companions, you’ll hear yet another arrangement of Night on Bald Mountain!
Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was asked to write incidental music for Henrik Ibsen’s play, Peer Gynt. He reportedly wasn’t happy with the project and complained that it was progressing very slowly. It took him about a year to finish. While the music has some lovely sections, including the evocative “Morning Mood,” it is music in Act 2, “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” that seems to win the popularity contest.
The scene describes the title character, Peer Gynt, entering the Mountain King’s Great Hall, which is populated by trolls, gnomes and goblins. They are angry with Peer Gynt and are suggesting various tortures to punish him. The music sounds just like that, especially when you hear the version with the choir of trolls shouting out! Here is the Arctic Philharmonia Orchestra and the Bodo Cathedral Choir, conducted by Peter Szilvay:
There’s a famous story that at the end of the premiere night, the playwright (Ibsen) got a subdued reaction, but “the crowd went wild” when the composer (Grieg) was asked to take a bow. Grieg created two suites from the music for the play, both of which are performed regularly today.
In 1886, composer Vincent d’Indy was in the Cévennes, a mountain range in southern France, where he heard a lovely folk tune. That simple tune inspired his Symphony on a French Mountain Air, which also goes by Symphonie cévenole, named for the mountain range. That folk tune begins the symphony, and is woven through the entire piece in a number of variations. I really like this 1958 recording of Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with guest pianist Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer:
Although most of d’Indy’s works are forgotten today, this symphony is still performed.
German composer Richard Strauss came by his love of mountains when he was a boy. He said he always loved nature, so it’s not a surprise that when he had a chance to build a home in Bavaria it had a spectacular view of the Alps. The story of An Alpine Symphony, however, was not so straightforward. It started as a tribute after the death of a famous Swiss painter, Karl Stauffer-Bern, in 1899. He never finished it, but then, inspired by the mountains he loved, he used some of that original project to write a 4-movement work titled Die Alpen. It was also left unfinished.
A dozen years later, in 1911, the death of his friend, composer Gustav Mahler, saw him attempt the work once more. This time, instead of a traditional symphony, it became a tone poem for large orchestra, and he finally completed it in 1915. There are 22 sections, each with subtitles. The first and last sections begin and end with the word “Night” so you can imagine a whole day in the Alps, with sections titled “The Ascent,” “Entry into the Forest,” “On the Alpine Pasture,” “On the Glacier,” and “Calm Before the Storm,” to name a few. Rudolf Kempe conducts Staatskapelle Dresden here:
By the way, modern orchestras have to deal with an unusual instrument in Strauss’s scoring called an aerophor. Since some of the notes Strauss writes are sustained for a long time, this instrument, patented in 1912, eliminated the need for the wind players to have to stop and take a breath. It was quite the complicated thing as it included a foot pump and air hose. The instrument doesn’t exist anymore, but since it’s in the score, today’s instrumentalists use what’s known as “circular breathing” to continue the sound without interruption.
A poem by his friend, Victor Hugo, Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, (What you hear on the mountain), inspired Franz Liszt to create the world’s first symphonic poem in 1848-49. While Liszt wrote the music, it was orchestrated by his protégé Joachim Raff. The music follows Hugo’s poem, and paints a picture of imperfect man and majestic nature trying to live together. I think Liszt captures the spirituality of the poem brilliantly in the last few quiet minutes of the piece. Here’s the whole thing, with Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra:
By the way, the piece was revised by Raff again in 1850, and then by Liszt himself in 1854. Despite Raff’s insistence that he was responsible for the creation of much of the music, the final Liszt version is the version we know today.
I didn’t know the life or works of American composer, violinist and teacher Cecil Burleigh until I heard Rachel Barton Pine’s CD, A Tribute to Maud Powell. Powell is considered America’s first great violin virtuoso, and Barton Pine recorded pieces that were either dedicated to, or arranged by, Powell. In his Four Rocky Mountain Sketches, which was dedicated to Powell, the Wyoming, New York-born Burleigh tried to capture the beauty and ferocity of the Rocky Mountains in four movements. Here is Rachel Barton Pine with pianist Matthew Hagle playing a tension-filled “The Rapids.”
The other movements are titled “At Sunset,” “Up the Canyon,” and “The Avalanche.”
Ralph Vaughan Williams was hired to write his first-ever soundtrack for a World War II-era movie, The 49th Parallel. The plot is about six Nazis who get stranded in Canada after their submarine is damaged and how they try to escape to the still-neutral United States. Although most of the film’s soundtrack is fully orchestrated, Vaughan Williams decided to write a solo piano piece for a scene titled “The Lake in the Mountains.” In a short amount of time you hear both the beauty of the mountains and the tension when the Nazis appear. Mark Bebbington plays it here:
Vaughan Williams extracted the piece and dedicated it to renowned performer and teacher Phyllis Sellick, who premiered it in the concert version.
Massachusetts-born composer Alan Hovhaness was commissioned by Leopold Stokowski to write a piece for his upcoming debut with the Houston Symphony in 1955. Hovhaness explained that the piece wasn’t about a specific mountain:
“Mountains are symbols, like pyramids, of man’s attempt to know God. Mountains are symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual worlds. To some, the Mysterious Mountain may be the phantom peak, unmeasured, thought to be higher than Everest, as seen from great distances by fliers in Tibet. To some, it may be the solitary mountain, the tower of strength over a countryside – Fujiyama, Ararat, Monadnock, Shasta, or Grand Teton.”
Here's the first recording made of the piece, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra:
When Hovhaness submitted the score, it didn’t have a name or an opus number. The story goes that Stokowski urged the composer to come up with both because “people like names and opus numbers.” Hovhaness responded with Mysterious Mountain, the name by which it was known for about 20 years. In the 1970s it was renamed Symphony No. 2, with the subtitle “Mysterious Mountain.”
There are numerous other pieces inspired by mountains which may make for a Part-2 down the road. Until that time, consider a vacation in the fresh air and tranquility of the mountains, and tuck away these pieces as a remembrance.
CODA: And now for the “Hill” that I mentioned in the title. Here’s Julie Andrews singing “The Hills Are Alive (with the Sound of Music),” from the 1965 movie Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. It was shot on location in Salzburg.