What do Fantasia, The Wizard of Oz, and Weekend at Bernie's have in common? Here's a hint: With Halloween right around the corner, if there's one piece of classical music that would get the "all-time spookiest in pop culture" award, it would have to be Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain." So let's take a closer look: A lesser-known arrangement first appeared in 1867, but the version you've heard a hundred times is the Rimsky-Korsakov-arranged, and later Stokowski-conducted take. Conceptually based on a gathering of witches, the piece is also the first known tone poem (inspired by "St. John's Night on the Bare Mountain") by a Russian composer. But its origins are among the most difficult and confusing to trace—English musicologist Gerald Abraham once said "No work of Mussorgsky's has had a more confused history and none is less known." While the piece's influences (which may or may not include Lizst) and early performance history are muddy, it's influence on pop culture is clear as a witch's cackle.
In 1940, Disney used the Stokowski-conducted adaptation for one of the eight parts in its third full-length animated feature, Fantasia. Depicting the terrifying devil Chernabog, this segment stood out, with its complete embodiment of evil, as one of the most stark and powerful moments of Disney animation to date. But it was one year earlier that it provided perhaps the most famous witch of all time with a theme: 1939's The Wizard of Oz incorporated the most recognizable "Bald Mountain" motif in a few spots, which can be heard on the 70th anniversary edition soundtrack on tracks "Cyclone," "Dorothy's Rescue, " and "On the Castle Wall." And from there, it's been used in several other films, mostly for comical purposes, such as Weekend at Bernie's in 1989. Okay, I threw in the Weekend reference only because it's a personal favorite. Nevertheless, "Night on Bald Mountain" is quite an aural treat this time of year—it just wouldn't be Halloween without it. Mwahaha!!!