Modest Mussorgsky: Dawn on the Moscow River


Intended to be the prelude for Mussorgsky’s last opera, Khovanschina, the work was to left unfinished after the composer’s death in 1881.  As the opera begins, the curtain is raised and we see the city of Moscow at the end of the 17th Century. As the title suggests, this prelude represents the landscape when dawn hits the Muscovy river. Due to  Mussorgsky passing away before completing this opera, other Russian composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsaov (1886) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1960), have created performance versions.

Khovanschina explores politics and the reforms of Peter the Great in the early 18th Century.  Mussorgsky laid many iconic figures throughout the opera which symbolise different elements of Russian society. Between the two main performance versions, there are some major differences. Rimsky-Korsakov evidently saw this work as a glorification of Peter the Great, whereas Shostakovich saw Peter as a tyrannical despot – similarly to Stalin. The opera is seldom performed, but when it is it seems that Shostakovich’s version is more popular.

Mussorgsky was part of a composer collective in Russia who favoured new, nationalistic approaches to music. The presence of a dichotomy between lyrical and folk melodies was of great importance to these composers. This collective also opposed the intellectual and complex approach to music that many German composers had at the time. The ideals of this group were strictly adhered to by  Mussorgsky, with him more often than not, basing his music on folk idioms.


The Music

Dawn on the Moscow River is a prime example of  Mussorgsky’s Russian folk style. The slowly-growing melody from the strings to the upper winds create the idea of the sun rising above the river. This theme is then passed around other instruments in the orchestra but in different rhythmic variations and harmonisations.

About 1 minute into the prelude, the integration of a Russian folk theme is heard. This is then taken and passed around the orchestra again, with each new variation creating a new spin on the lyrical sequence. The horns play a bell motif, which is said to represent the chiming of the bells of Moscow. The theme is then shifted into a warm F# major tonality before the music begins to come to a quiet and passive close. Mussorgsky’s extensive use of call and response techniques, reharmonisation and various timbres (such as pizzicato and arco strings) creates a serene and fresh start for this Russian opera.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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