Modest Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain

We get our values from many sources–friends, family, religion, culture, and lessons learned. Today’s piece relates to a lesson learned in my college year. (See the story below today’s piece.)

When I was a child, one of the network television stations would broadcast The Wizard of Oz once a year. This was before VCRs, DVD, Youtube and Tivo. My whole family would always watch it together, almost like a religious event, and it always had the same effect on me. The Munchkins delighted me. The witch always scared me to death. The scarecrow was my best friend. All the scenes in the Emerald City filled me with awe—especially the horse of a different color. And when the witch’s henchmen were chasing Dorothy and her friends along the parapets of the evil castle, the music contributed to the impending doom and heightened my fear.

The music played during that final chase scene, I later found out, was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Mussorgsky was one of a group of five Russian composers who flourished at the end of the 19th century. This group included Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Mussorgsky was considered to be the most gifted of the five, but unfortunately he drank himself to death, which occurred at the age of 42. He left a number of works, which his friends and later composers finished for him. Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, orchestrated Night on Bald Mountain producing the version that was used in Fantasia andThe Wizard of Oz.

Mussorgsky wrote the piece for St. John’s Eve, which falls near the summer solstice and is celebrated in Russia as the time when witches and other evil spirits gather on a local mountain to celebrate. I wonder if this is where our Halloween comes from.

Mussorgsky’s piece depicts the frenetic dancing of witches, the shrieks and howls of animals, spirits and the wind, and the light of dawn, which scatters the spirits. He uses bombastic brass, rapid decrescendos played on violins, and high pitched blasts of woodwinds to capture the mood of this pagan ritual perfectly. It’s not the kind of music you would put on at a dinner party, of course, but it is perfect when you want to just sit back and be awed by the power of an orchestra to evoke vivid visual scenes. And it worked perfectly in The Wizard of Oz.

Mussorgsky Biography

Purchase Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bald Mountain

The Wizard of Faux Pas

Robert Fulghum wrote a best-seller entitled All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. That book touched a nerve in me. You see, my rural school system didn’t offer kindergarten. Consequently I have spent a good deal of my energy during my adult life trying to unlearn the darker lessons of my childhood and develop a more humane, tolerant and compassionate set of ethics.

It would be too easy to point the finger of blame at certain individuals, my parents, or the overwhelmingly white, conservative and working-class population of my native northern Indiana. Of course, you couldn’t really call it a hotbed of liberal tolerance, either. I grew up hearing and assimilating the prejudices and biases behind the jokes told about Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and people with disabilities including the deaf, the lame, the blind, people with cleft palates, in wheel chairs or with no arms or legs.

It would be nice to say that once the civil rights movement took hold and I reached a cognizant age, I quickly shed all of my prejudices, biases and stereotypical beliefs. Unfortunately, their roots ran deep into thoughts and ideas which sometimes only surfaced in the most inappropriate times. Thus, I have had to lose each flawed and dangerous belief by the same painful process—one at a time and by making a horrible gaffe. Then some member of the offended group would then give me a lecture. If I was lucky, they would remain my friend. If not, they would disappear for ever.

The Fall of 1976 offered another one of what my late friend David Hendrickson used to call “A f****** growth opportunity.” During that, the first semester of my senior year of college, my girlfriend Linda was in England. Now, my Myers-Briggs rating pegs me fairly solidly as an extravert, and I was spending a fair amount of time with the old artsy-campy crowd who had moved out of the French House where I’d previously lived before moving into an apartment. But I still longed for some female companionship. I wasn’t unfaithful to my girlfriend, but I did start hanging out a bit with a girl named Lucy, who was in one of my French classes and who worked at the library where my friend Thom Klem worked.

Lucy had a fairly small stature, and being just five foot six inches tall myself I felt kind of tall around her. I believe she studied something like comparative literature or English, and she had a very precise, almost British, way of talking. Lucy also had a wry, sometimes even wicked, sense of humor, and I often found myself frequently chatting with her on my visits to see Thom.

One day, Thom suggested we cook dinner at his house and we invited Lucy along. On the way there that evening, I stopped off to buy a big jug of cheap wine. The three of us had a nice, civilized meal and then we retired to Thom’s room where we sat around drinking and talking. One of the lessons I learned growing up was that the goal of drinking was to get drunk, and so I knocked back a good number of glasses of the rot gut.

The drunker I got, the more my tongue loosened and I started telling funny stories. I related a news item I had read in the newspaper that day. Someone had just written a book about the making of the movie,The Wizard of Oz. The article detailed some of the problems the filmmakers had with the Munchkins. They had put out a casting call for midgets and dwarfs to play the part of the Munchkins. They recruited heavily in circuses, for sadly, that’s the milieu where most people with that disability ended up—in carnival and circus freak shows.

In the movie, the Munchkins are portrayed as sweet and innocent and child like. In reality some of the actors that played them were criminals, alcoholics, and even prostitutes. The article had a tongue in cheek tone to it and related how some of the male actors tried to come on to Judy Garland, pinch her behind, or grope her.

I summarized the story with great glee. When I finished, there was dead silence. Then Lucy proceeded to give me a lesson on tolerance. Dwarfs and midgets aren’t freaks, she told me. They have feelings and the right to be treated like human beings. The actors who played the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz should have my sympathy, not my derision.

I felt like such a cad. I’d grown up thinking it was OK to make jokes about people with disabilities. Perhaps Lucy’s small stature indicated dwarfism in her family. Or perhaps she had been ridiculed for her small size all her life. The amazing thing was that as a child and adolescent, I had been made fun of for being small as well. And that shows some of the fundamental problems with being prejudiced. First, eventually someone can find some reason to discriminate against you; and second, most people do it unconsciously and probably because someone has made fun of them in the past.

By the end of the night at Thom Klem’s, I had drunk myself into near oblivion. When I was helping Thom escort Lucy to the street, I fell off the steps leading up to his porch and into the bushes that enclosed his small front yard. Thom and Lucy rescued me, put me to bed, and I awoke the next morning with the worst hangover of my life. After that, Lucy treated me perfunctorily and coolly when I met her at the library. She had obviously written me off as a dolt, but she taught me a valuable lesson about tolerance and prejudice that day. I only wish someone had given me a similar lesson about alcohol consumption.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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