BBC Music Magazine

Musorgsky’s style


Audacious harmonies Musorgsky composed at the piano, and often discovered striking and unorthodox harmonies through extemporis­ing. In this way, he hit upon the remarkable bell harmonies which open the coronation scene of his opera Boris Godunov.

Language of the heart Musorgsky’s expressive­ness derives to a degree from Schumann’s harmonic language. Yet one of his greatest achievemen­ts was the way his music reflects the fractured, multidimen­sional nature of the individual human soul or identity – whether the mighty yet tormented Tsar Boris (below, played by Theodor Scheidl in 1936) or a humble peasant woman. Compare and contrast Particular­ly when Musorgsky’s music is without the thread of a vocal line, an idea is often not so much answered as complement­ed or contrasted with another idea. ‘Dawn on the Moscow River’ which opens Khovanshch­ina offers a brilliant depiction through a mosaic of musical ideas – a technique Stravinsky, for instance, was to push further in his music from Petrushka onwards.

That martial sound An exception to the above technique, perhaps not surprising­ly for a former guards officer, is when Musorgsky composes a march. For these, he structures the thematic material more convention­ally: excellent examples include the festive march from Mlada, and the hair-raising march of the Streltsy in his incomplete opera Khovanshch­ina.

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