Musorgsky: A Style Guide

We analyse the themes of the Russian composer's major works


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, multi-dimensional nature of the individual human soul or identity – whether the mighty yet tormented Tsar Boris or a humble peasant woman.

Musorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky Theatre in 2012

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.


Musorgsky's Khovanshchina