Boris Godunov

Modest Mussorgsky and Boris Godunov

Modeste Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was a member of a so-called ‘New Russian School’ (also known as The Mighty Kuchka and The Five) comprising the composers Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and Balakirev.  These composers were a loosely formed coalition against the more heavily Western-influenced, cosmopolitan Anton Rubenstein whose work in music dominated Russia during the mid-nineteenth century. Rubenstein believed that music, in its purest form, was a “German art”, and his operatic works were particularly popular in German speaking countries (they were enthusiastically promoted by no less a personage than Franz Liszt in Weimar, who was also simultaneously promoting Wagner’s ‘music of the future’). The Five, on the other hand, were nationalists and looked to their musical and literary Russian roots for inspiration. For these five men music began as an avocation, even as a hobby; they were, in essence, amateurs. For cultured Russians from the middle or aristocratic classes the study of music was a mandatory part of their education. But few were encouraged to actually be musicians or composers. Mussorgsky for his part was destined for a life in the military. Borodin was a distinguished chemist, Cui an engineer in the army who eventually attained the rank of general. But their passion was music, particularly the composition of works that truly reflected the culture, history, spirit and musical traditions of Russia.

Mussorgsky had the typical musical education of his peers, excelling at the piano and writing short pieces. He met Borodin and Dargomïzhsky in the mid 1850s, who in turn introduced him to Cui and Balakirev. He studied composition with Balakirev and was so enthusiastic about his prospective future as a composer that he rashly resigned his military commission (he was by this time an officer in the Tsar’s personal guard). He later found it necessary to take a low level position as a government clerk, all the while attempting to make his name as a composer. An early operatic project, a setting of Victor Hugo’s Han d’Islande, never came to fruition. He next attempted a grand opera based on Flaubert’s Salammbô.  It remained unfinished, however, although much of the material from this project eventually found its way into Boris. He also attempted a comic opera based on Gogol’s Zhenit’ba (Marriage), a work that inspired him to write music that closely conformed to the rhythm and color of the Russian language, wanting his characters to sing with the identical intonations of common speech. All of this activity took place in the mid-1860s and, as in the case of all of the composers in the ‘Kuchka’, compositions were presented to the group for comment, criticism and encouragement. By 1868 he was well into the composition of Boris.

Mussorgsky’s greatest desire was to write a work that would define a new national opera, music drama that could easily and truthfully proclaim its ‘Russianness’. At the suggestion of an acquaintance he looked to Pushkin’s ‘Shakespearean experiment’, the verse-play Boris Godunov.   [Tracing the various versions of the opera Boris Godunov is a daunting and confusing chore. Because San Diego Opera is performing Mussorgsky’s first version of the work from 1869, this article will focus on it alone.  But more detailed information on the other versions, including the composer’s own 1872 revision as well as re-orchestrations by Rimsky-Korsakov and other composers, can be easily found in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera.]

In writing Boris, Mussorgsky pulled music (and a great deal of experience) from his earlier works, as well as tunes from the Russian ‘folk’ repertoire. When it was completed at the end of 1869 he gave the score to a committee of the Imperial Theatres in hopes of a production, but he was disappointed when, in 1871, they ultimately rejected the work. The reason for its dismissal was that the work lacked a principal female role but in revising it the composer went further than simply adding love interest: he completely re-thought whole swaths of the drama making it a more ‘traditional’ piece, an opera on a grander scale than the first version. As the musicologist and author Richard Taruskin has noted, the opera “was now unmistakably a tragedy, whereas the earlier version had been cast in a mixed genre whose tone, to the composer’s consternation, had been misconstrued by many of its early (private) auditors.” (Grove, “Boris Godunov”)

The new material in the revision was first performed at a benefit concert at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1873, a performance that was so well received that the opera was finally staged in its entirety in February, 1874 to great acclaim. Unfortunately, Cui, who was the music critic for an influential St. Petersburg newspaper, gave the performance an unfavorable review. This unkind act (undoubtedly a result of Cui’s envy at his brother ‘Kuchkist’s’ success) signaled the end of The Russian Five and any influence they had on the direction of Russian art music from that time on was due to individual, rather than communal, efforts.

Despite further work on his part in the operatic sphere, Mussorgsky’s Boris ended up being his only completed opera. Khovanshchina was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mlada in a collaboration of Rimsky, Cui (!) and Borodin, Sorochinskaya by others. It is regretful that Mussorgsky’s lifelong addiction to alcohol not only killed him at the relatively early age of 42, but made it impossible for him to see any of these larger projects to their completion.

The shorter first version of Boris Godunov is arguably more direct and immediate in its impact upon an audience. It is darker and more austere in orchestration than the traditionally performed Rimsky-Korsakov version and certainly much shorter being only in seven scenes (Rimsky re-orchestrated the longer 1872 version which has nine scenes). It is much more focused on the main character than Rimsky’s later version, and the vocal lines are highlighted in such a way as to give greater importance to the text.  But as in the case of Carmen, The Tales of Hoffman and Don Carlos, there is no definitive version of Boris Godunov. Every production team that approaches this work must make difficult decisions before embarking on it in order to decide exactly which Boris will be performed, and with which cuts, additions and amendments to the score!  Not an easy prospect for a work that has engendered enough popularity with opera audiences to become a standard repertory item.

The Libretto and Source of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov is based on the historical verse-play by the same name published by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in 1831.   Pushkin, considered the founder of modern Russian literature and Russia’s greatest poet, was raised in a cultured atmosphere by his family in Moscow. His childhood was marked by the supervision of a seemingly endless line of nurses, nannies and tutors. As was true of many Russian families in his time, the primary language spoken in the home was French, but he learned Russian from serfs in the family’s employ. With this background it is difficult to understand with any surety where his total grasp and ease with the Russian language came from, other than stating the obvious: Pushkin was a genius whose understanding of the color and intonation of the spoken word led him to revolutionize the use of the language in drama, verse and narrative.

One of the most interesting aspects of Pushkin’s life is his genealogy. On his father’s side he was descended from an ancient noble Russian family, but his maternal great-grandfather was an Ethiopian prince in the service of Peter the Great. He was fascinated by stories of Gannibal (Hannibal), his black African ancestor, and his eventual rise to the rank of general in Peter’s army. Pushkin often made reference to his own physical appearance as being more ‘African’ than ‘Russian’! Even more interesting is the fact that one of the poet’s daughters and a granddaughter both married German princes and are directly related to the Mountbatten family (Pushkin’s granddaughter Nadejda, Countess Torby, was the aunt of Prince Philip, the consort to Queen Elizabeth II).

Pushkin was greatly influenced by Shakespeare and Byron but he was at the same time greatly devoted to Russian folk tales, legends and fairy stories. As with many poets of this Romantic age he was also enamored of the Russian countryside and the lives and culture of the simple people, serfs and peasants, who populated it.  At about the age of twenty he produced Ruslan and Ludmila, a fairy tale in the shape of a narrative poem which the composer Mikhail Glinka later fashioned into an opera (1842). There followed a series of imitation folk tales and legends including Rusalka (1826-32) and The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1831). His verse novel, Yevgeny Onegin appeared in 1830 and was turned into an opera by Tchaikovsky in 1879. Onegin is considered the greatest of Pushkin’s works; cultured Russians can recite whole chapters of the work by memory.

The historical tragedy Boris Godunov was published in 1831 and probably written in 1825 while Pushkin was in exile at his family’s estate in Mikhailoskove. The inspiration for the play (his only drama) was found in the history plays of William Shakespeare, especially works like Richard II, Henry IV and Macbeth.

Boris was something of a Shakespearean experiment, the playwright seeking to take an extremely complicated piece of Russian political history and condense it in order to be perfectly understood by an audience. At the same time, he wanted the work to be in beautiful verse while also creating believable characters. The play was, of course, about the struggle for power over Russia, something not ever very far from the peoples’ consciousness. The work therefore had (and has!) great significance for the Russian people, a significance which was not lost on state censors in Pushkin’s time. When the author read it privately to a room full of friends, the Tsar’s secret police were eavesdropping; hence the drama went unperformed during Pushkin’s lifetime  (although Tsar Nicholas I did finally relent and allow a censored version of the play to be published in 1831 as a wedding gift for Pushkin that year).

The work has a very modern sensibility and deals with such issues as the mass manipulation of public opinion for political purposes. As history, the play stays close to the (then) accepted version of events leading to Boris’ accession to the throne and eventual death. And because of the dramatic characterizations the work moves as quickly as any of its Shakespearean forebears.

Many of Pushkin’s works have been used as the basis for opera libretti: Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila, Dargomïshky’s The Stone Guest, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar Saltan, Mozart and Salieri and The Golden Cockerel, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mazepa and The Queen of Spades, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko and Stravinsky’s Mavra.   In the case of Mussorgky’s Boris, the composer used Pushkin’s play as the basis for his own libretto, in many instances keeping the original verse intact.

The Music of Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov

This article should probably be entitled “The Score of Boris” or even “The Problem with the Score of Boris” because of all of the confusing issues involved in even speaking about the piece. To begin with, the composer himself created two versions: the first, in 1869, containing seven scenes; the second, in 1874, containing two additional scenes and small additions to the original seven. Although the version of 1874 met with great public acclaim, the critics (including his fellow composers in ‘the Five’) were unkind. They were particularly perplexed by the dark and rather somber orchestration of the score. Fifteen years after the composer’s death in 1881, his close friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov decided to take the score in hand and re-orchestrate it,  brightening it considerably and ‘fixing’ many other rhythmic and structural details along the way. Rimsky ‘re-orchestrated’ his re-orchestration in 1908 for the impresario Serge Diaghilev who was introducing Russian music, opera and dance to the West. Following this all manner of composers and arrangers felt that they had carte blanche to try their own hand at ‘improving’ Mussorgsky’s work. They include Anatol Liadov, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Nikolai Cherepnin, Dmitri Shostakovich and Karl Rathaus. Mussorgsky’s own original score had to be rediscovered through trial and error in the 20th century until now when we find the 1869 version considered a viable, some say even preferable, alternative to all of the variants that now exist.

One of the things that Mussorgsky wanted to do with this opera was to capture in music the way real people express themselves, and in the same simple language ‘of the people’ in order to create a true national epic. Happily this wasn’t far from Pushkin’s intention in creating the verse play in the first place. Both artists wanted their work to not only be a reflection of a critical moment in Russian history; they wanted to create a vast canvas upon which to paint the national character in all its hues. The ‘people of Russia’ are a corporate identity in both the spoken drama and the opera, and they play a role as significant as Boris or any other principal character.

Vocally speaking it is remarkable how the melodic lines given to the characters (particularly Boris) portray the emotion in the text in an immediate, forceful way. Mussorgsky is never less than direct. This is especially true in Boris’ great monologue in Act II and his farewell and death at the end of the opera. It also leads to the false impression that there is no melody at all; repeated hearings of the score will dispel this myth. But Boris Godunov is definitely closer to arioso than to aria, a lyric style somewhere between recitative and the flowering of true song. It is this semi-melodic style which pervades the more dramatic moments in the opera. Not that there aren’t pure songs in the work; there are. They will be heard in the scene at the inn and at the beginning of the second act where we hear children’s songs sprung from the composer’s sensitivity to Russian folk song.

In terms of balance one constantly feels that Mussorgsky is being careful to be sure that the text is always heard clearly above the orchestra which is only occasionally given the opportunity to fly on its own. The overall feel of the score is ‘dark’, with an emphasis on the lower ranged instruments of each orchestral section. That feeling is bolstered by the rather thick textures the composer creates in the movement of these lower ‘voices’ against each other throughout the score. This description is not unlike how a person would describe the sound of an all male Russian Orthodox choir during services: emphasis on darkness certainly, and with a sense of monumental space. We also feel intuitively that we are experiencing something akin to Wagnerian time, time suspended and allowed to roll out at a rather slow pace (it is remarkable that one feels this whether listening to the two-hour 1869 version or the much longer 1874 version!)

The music, as in any great opera, matches the story, the atmosphere and the characters perfectly. It can be described as direct, immediate in its impact, somber, sustained, even ‘blunt’. All of these qualities are innately ‘Russian’. But even the first audiences that experienced the work were much more used to German, French and Italian opera in their theatres. It was probably the stark difference between this score and the more ‘Western’ operas that were regularly performed in Russian theatres that accounts for the amount of critical disdain poured upon the work after its first performance. It is also perhaps the reason that Mussorgsky’s composer friends were so attentive to the score after his death, tinkering with it so that it put its best face forward to the public, almost apologizing for its directness and naïve genius. It can now stand on its own, without the redactions of well-meaning apologists, and elicit real affection from any lover of great opera.

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