Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Story of Chernabog and A Night on Bald Mountain - Part 2

It is generally assumed that the responsibility of identifying Disney’s monstrous entity with the ancient Slavic deity lies with Chernabog’s chief animator, Vladimir “Bill” Tytla. No name is given to the character in the film, and both production sketches and promotional materials of the time call him by all sorts of different, satanic names. Tytla, however, made use of the name “Chernobog” and was himself a Ukrainian-American who may have been familiar with the name through his ancestral roots. In his own words: "On all my animation I tried to do some research and look into the background of each character. But I could relate immediately to this character. Ukrainian folklore is based on Chernabog." Some linguists argue that the name of Chernabog is still in use, in a modified and nearly unrecognizable form, as a curse in Slavic tongues. While it’s not implausible that Tytla recalled his Ukrainian heritage, I think there is another very likely possibility: Chernabog is mentioned by name in the program of Night on Bald Mountain.

Bill Tytla and a maquette of Chernabog.
The history of Modest Mussorgsky’s most famous work is circuitous, and the full piece was never heard during his lifetime. He first spoke of his intention to write an opera based on the story St. John’s Eve by Nikolai Gogol in 1858. Gogol’s book, written in 1830, is a chilling tale of witches, greed, classism, and demonic possession. The date of St. John’s Eve (June 24) is significant, as it marks Midsummer Eve, the summer solstice, and the Slavic pagan holy day of Kupala. There would be bonfires and ritual baths, young women would float wreaths in the rivers, and would-be couples would enter the forest together to find a rare (nonexistent) fern that flowered only on that night. With the arrival of Christianity, the date was claimed for St. John the Baptist and the rituals reinterpreted. However, folk memory retained the ancient pagan practices and began to see St. John’s Eve as a night of devilry and witchcraft.

That opera never materialized, but the composer did pen a tone poem called “St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain” in 1867. Unfortunately, Mussorgsky’s mentor condemned the finished work as “rubbish” and it went unheard until the 1930’s. In 1872, Mussorgsky adapted “St. John’s Eve” for a collaborative opera-ballet entitled Mlada. This version was called the “Glorification of Chernobog,” and features a ghoulish convention of ogres, spirits and demons. A young prince’s betrothed was poisoned by a greedy woman and her father, who now wish his hand and his kingdom. She even goes so far as to sell her soul to the evil goddess Morena to achieve her goals, who hatches a plot to seduce the prince. The spirit of his betrothed leads the prince to the top of a bald mountain, expressing their mutual desire to be reunited in death, when the denizens of Hell tumble out of the underworld. Chief of them is Chernabog, who gives the prince a vision of Cleopatra in hopes that he will forget about his betrothed. It nearly works, but he is saved by the crowing of a rooster. Daybreak has come, and with it, the evil spirits disperse.

Recording of the 1867 version of "Saint John's Eve on Bald Mountain"

While Mussorgsky completed his contribution to the project, Mlada itself never was. The composer once more took his music and adapted it, this time as the intermezzo in an opera titled The Fair at Sorochyntsi. In this intermezzo, titled “Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad,” a lovelorn boy falls asleep and has a terrifying experience of seeing Chernabog rise before yet another witches Sabbath. Adding to the terror is a choral component absent in other versions. The program drafted by Mussorgsky outlines the piece as follows:
The peasant lad sleeps at the foot of a hillock at some distance from the hut where he should have been. In his sleep appear to him:

1. Subterranean roar of non-human voices, uttering non-human words. 2. The subterranean kingdom of darkness comes into its own—mocking the sleeping peasant lad.
3. Foreshadowing of the appearance of Chernobog (Satan).
4. The peasant lad left by the spirits of darkness. Appearance of Chernobog.
5. Worship of Chornobog and the black mass.
6. Sabbath.
7. At the wildest moment of the sabbath the sound of a Christian church bell. Chernobog suddenly disappears.
8. Suffering of the demons.
9. Voices of the clergy in church.
10. Disappearance of the demons and the peasant lad's awakening.
The Fair at Sorochyntsi was left unfinished by Mussorgsky’s death in 1881. Friends of the composer, most notably Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, took on the task of adapting Mussorgsky’s unfinished and unpublished works for public consumption. Utilizing “Dream Vision of the Peasant Lad,” Rimsky-Korsakov created the version of Night on Bald Mountain best-known today. It was not an easy process, though. From Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography:
With Mussorgsky's material as a basis, I decided to create an instrumental piece by retaining all of the author's best and coherent material, adding the fewest possible interpolations of my own. It was necessary to create a form in which Mussorgsky's ideas would mould in the best fashion. It was a difficult task, of which the satisfactory solution baffled me for two years, though in the other works of Mussorgsky I had got on with comparative ease.
Among the things retained by Rimsky-Korsakov is the name of Chernobog. From the program:
Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices. Appearance of the Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of Chernobog. Glorification of Chernobog and celebration of the Black Mass. Witches' Sabbath. At the height of the orgy, the bell of the little village church is heard from afar. The Spirits of Darkness are dispersed. Daybreak.
Both Fantasia’s conductor Leopold Stokowski (who in turn arranged Rimsky-Korsakov’s version for Fantasia) and its master of ceremonies, the music scholar Deems Taylor, would undoubtedly have been aware of this and perhaps it was they who suggested calling the character by that name. Rather than an inventive reinterpretation in the vein of the Pastoral Symphony or Rite of Spring, Night on Bald Mountain may be a fairly straightforward animating of the symphony’s actual story, like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

However Disney’s most visually striking and viscerally powerful villainous figure got his name, it is certain that this name would have been largely forgotten if not for Fantasia. One of my fondest memories of Halloween was the annual ritual of watching Hans Conried as the Magic Mirror hosting an anthology of Disney villains, topped off with Chernabog’s leering visage chilling us to the bones before sending us out to scare up candy. 

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