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,