BBC Music Magazine

Debussy and Ravel were enthralled by Musorgsky’s audacious use of harmony


Nocturnes – indeed its opening theme is practicall­y stolen from Musorgsky’s song ‘Thou didst not know me’ (from the cycle Sunless). Ravel famously reworked Musorgsky’s piano cycle Pictures at an Exhibition into a vibrantly colourful and hugely popular orchestral showpiece. Closer to the Russian composer still is Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges – and not simply because it follows the example of Musorgsky’s transforma­tion of speech into expressive vocal writing

(as did the Czech composer Janá ek). Ravel’s remarkable empathy with the child facing the consequenc­es of his own fury, and the poignancy of his recognisin­g how easy it is to destroy what one loves, are just as much legacy from Musorgsky’s mixture of harsh realism and apparent yet touching sentiment. of the most nightmaris­h visions from Russia’s mythology.

For all Musorgsky’s much-admired ability as a pianist, he wrote little of significan­ce for his instrument apart from Pictures. His reputation as one of the greatest and most seminal composers Russia produced in the 19th century rests above all on his songs and operas, which are quite unlike any others previously composed. In his songs particular­ly, Musorgsky wrested the form well out of the genteel salon. While contempora­ries such as Tchaikovsk­y, and even Musorgsky’s colleagues among the Mighty Handful (the neo-nationalis­t group led by Balakirev, whose members included Borodin and Rimsky-korsakov) continued to write songs about hopeless love, nightingal­es and fragrant flowers, Musorgsky presented street urchins,

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