St. John’s Eve

Since first seeing Walt Disney’s Fantasia (when a youngster, in a movie theaters), I had been under the impression that Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s tone poem “Night on Bald Mountain” was a Hallowe’en piece where witches and other evil spirits romp throughout the night on the mountain only to be sent back into their inferno at dawn. Animation of the devil Chernobog was scary to a kid. And it seemed to fit with the theme of All Hallows Eve preceding the dawn of All Saints Day. This was reinforced so because the classical music radio station here often played the recording on Hallowe’en.

When they became available, I purchased the DVD of Fantasia, and have watched it every now and then. It’s amazing that the animation — it was produced in the 1940s— is so good. On a whim, I played Mussorgsky’s part of the movie as a Hallowe’en treat for a class I was teaching at the Dallas County Community College District as an adjunct faculty member. That prompted me to look into the provenance of the piece so as not to impart misinformation.

I discovered that Mussorgsky originally titled the piece “St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain.” His inspiration was an eponymous short story by fellow Russian Nikolai Gogol, published in 1930. It originally in 1867 and was revised around 1872 and again in 1880. That last version contained a hauntingly beautiful quiet ending; in which a church bell announces the dawn, and daybreak chases away Chernobog and his minions.

Beginning at sunset on June 23rd, St. John’s Eve is the eve of celebration before the Feast Day of John the Baptist. The New Testament relates that John was born six months before Jesus (Luke 1:26-37, 56-57). Thus, the feast of John the Baptist is June 24th, six months before Christmas, the Western Christian date of December 25.

St. John’s day is close to the summer solstice, Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere. The holiday has been, and still is, celebrated in many places, including New Orleans, in the practice of Louisiana Voodoo. The famous Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau was said to have held ceremonies on the Bayou St. John there.


Note: For what it’s worth, the familiar version of “Night on Bald Mountain,” including the one in Fantasia was rearranged by Mussorgsky’s contemporary, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who many have added the church bell finale.
Chernobog (Russian: dark god) has been historically assumed to be the dualistic counterpart or contrasting aspect of the good deity, Belobog. Both under different forms of the name are Slavic pagan deities.

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