Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Boris Godunov (1869 Version) - Background and Synopsis
The idea of an opera based on Alexander Pushkin’s historical novel about the tsar Boris Godunov was suggested to the composer Modest Mussorgsky by the historian Vladimir Nikolsky in 1868. In the more enlightened Russia of the reformer Tsar Alexander the Second, Pushkin’s novel had at last been passed for a theatrical production by the censor. Although Boris Godunov was a study of a tsar racked with guilt over a murder he had initiated, Alexander the Second had stipulated that it was permissable to present a tsar from a previous dynasty in an investigatory portrait.
The boyar Boris Godunov was elected tsar in 1598. Pushkin’s novel describes Boris the usurper’s inability to forget the crime he committed in Uglich in 1591 when he ordered the murder of the nine year old tsarevich, who was next in line to the throne after his inept half-brother Fyodor. Thus on Fyodor’s death in 1598, Boris was able to have himself elected to the throne. In the novel, Boris’s mental condition gradually and inexorably deteriorates, not only because of his conscience, but also because of his distrust and fear of his senior advisors. Although he is portrayed as a wise and good ruler, partly from superstition and partly from a justifiable insecurity because of his actions, Boris fears an uprising and is increasingly frightened by fabricated reports that the murdered tsarevich is alive. Feeling isolated, he loses his confidence, and with his top aide Prince Vasily Shuisky, who wants to step into his shoes, manipulatively fuelling his fears, his health finally collapses and he dies a broken man. Pushkin’s historical account of the events in Boris Godunov’s life was in accord with the views of a number of Nineteenth Century writers, but it has long been asserted that there is no evidence at all that Boris Godunov did commit the crime at Uglich. Nevertheless Mussorgsky accepted Pushkin’s text and it was the inspiration for a ground-breaking opera of remarkable originality.
For several years Mussorgsky had been experimenting with a radically new form of composition, having originally been influenced by the work of his innovative compatriot Alexander Dargomizhsky, and in particular his opera The Stone Guest. Following Dargomizhsky, Mussorgsky had composed some songs and an unfinished opera, The Marriage, in which he aimed to depict the natural, realistic characteristics of people in musical imitations of conversational, speech-like sounds and rhythms. Mussorgsky felt that through this form of declamation and recitative he could portray human and dramatic situations with a far greater realism and flexibility than through the more predominantly lyrical and melodic lines of most song and opera. Both the psychological force of Boris Godunov’s conflicts and the panoramic tragedy of the Russian peoples’ history in Pushkin’s novel strongly appealed to Mussorgsky and he felt they would be ideal subjects for his musical expression.
In the autumn of 1868 Mussorgsky began writing his new opera, supplying the libretto as well as the music, and he applied himself with such intensity that after just fourteen months he had completed a massive scale work. Consisting of seven scenes grouped into four acts, it depicted Boris Godunov’s accession to the throne, his concern to establish a dynasty through his son, and his gradual deterioration under the enormous weight of his fears. It also, most importantly, portrayed the suffering and struggling of the Russian people in the face of poverty, famine and, despite Boris Godunov’s good intentions, oppression. Mussorgsky felt strongly about the entire history of the Russian peoples’ tribulations, and Boris’s wish but ultimate failure to improve the peasants’ plight was for him an important element of the story.
In 1870 Mussorgsky presented his opera to the Maryinski Theatre. Naturally he was bitterly disappointed when they rejected it. Partly because of this, but also partly because he began to re-evaluate the dramatic content and re-think the musical content significantly, during the following two years he re-wrote the opera making some substantial changes to the story and also notably modifying his musical style. Again the opera was rejected, but then, through the intervention of an influential soprano at the Mariinski Theatre, it was re-considered and finally accepted in its new form, and the premiere took place in January 1874. It was a notable success at first and was performed 21 times in the composer's lifetime, but it was not absorbed into the regular repertoire, and it was only when Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov prepared his drastically modified arrangement in 1896 with Fyodor Chaliapin in the title role that the opera became popular, entering the repertoire of most of the great international theatres'.
The differences between Mussorgsky’s original 1869 and revised 1872 versions are considerable, dramatically and musically. Although there are many similar passages, Mussorgsky changed the dramatic emphasis by adding and changing the order of some scenes for the revised version. This especially concerned a change of emphasis in the role of the people, sung by the chorus. In the original version they are seen as being reluctantly submissive, and the emphasis is on Boris’s struggles with himself and his advisors. The opera ends with the death of Boris, and the audience comes away with the final impression of his tragedy. In the later opera the discontent of the people is more centrally represented. Boris’s fears about an uprising are given more focus, and he dwells more on his recognition of the popular discontent his crime has brought about. In the revised version, there is a scene after his death, set in Kromi forest, in which the people support a revolutionary procession of the False Dmitry (actually Grigory the Pretender to the throne, who, with the conspiring of Shuisky and the monk Pimen has posed as the risen tsarevich murdered by Boris). This scene ends with the Holy Fool lamenting the eternal suffering of poor Russia, and is transferred from a scene in the earlier version (cut out in the later opera) in which, outside St Basil’s Cathedral, the people plead with Boris, and the Holy Fool insults him by refusing to pray for a murderer. Thus in the revised version, the audience’s final impression is of the tragedy of Russia rather than the tragedy of Boris.
Mussorgsky also altered his musical style quite noticeably in the later opera. In 1869 he produced what he called his opera dialogue, literally a sung play, in which he fully exploited and indeed developed the spontaneous, declamatory speech-like style of his most recent works. In this way he felt he could portray the private torture of Boris’s mind and the roughness of the Russian peoples’ lives in music of dramatic and uncompromising starkness. In 1872 he composed more melody and added some lyrical episodes, weaving them into his new recitative speech style to give the opera a sometimes warmer and more rounded body whilst still retaining much of the essential severe harshness of the original. In the later version he wrote some arias, and not only for lyrical effect: Boris’s Act Two Monologue on his conscience as king (Act Three in the original) in which he admits that he has attained the highest power at the price of his soul and mind, is rewritten as an aria to give his confession a more dramatically tragic weight. In the earlier version it was a more restless and less imposing soliloquy in the recitative style.
It has often been said that the main reason for all these changes was the Mariinski Theatre’s rejection of the original version, but although this was one factor, in fact the composer had begun to reconsider the entire work quite fundamentally in 1870 before he received news of its rejection by the Theatre. Their principal objection was the opera’s lack of romance and indeed its harsh, severe style. Mussorgsky did react to both these criticisms by adding three new Polish scenes, which he had excised from Pushkin’s novel, which include a part for Marina Mniszek and a scene of romantic passion between her and Grigory (the False Pretender Dmitry). But most of the other changes were made because he was radically rethinking the entire nature of his work. In fact the revised version often departs considerably from Pushkin’s texts and even draws on other literary sources. In 1872 Mussorgsky felt differently about his subject compared with 1869.
The differences between Mussorgsky’s two versions of Boris Godunov are, however, in themselves small in comparison to the change wrought by Rimsky-Korsakov in his two performing versions of 1896 and 1908. He felt – correctly - that unless the opera was radically re-rewritten in a far more orthodox and more appealing style it was unlikely to be performed in the foreseeable future. He softened the rougher edges by smoothing out many of the strange and harsh harmonies, and he made a major re-orchestration with rich, lavish colours that particularly emphasised the spectacle element. The scenes were given more dramatic movement and colour, and Boris himself was given even greater prominence than in Moussorgsky’s first version and became an altogether more melodramatic character. In the Rimsky-Korsakov version, Boris is a stronger and more dramatically heroic personality, whereas in both the Moussorgsky versions his insecurity and really private anguish and also the harsh and troubled environment of Russia are portrayed far more harrowingly through the stark and severe ambience. Nevertheless it must never be forgotten that Rimsky-Korsakov’s intentions were totally honourable and his actions were proved to be in the interests of Mussorgsky. He always maintained that he was solely preparing a performing version which he felt would be a practically more viable edition to perform, and he drew attention to the existence of the original score which he hoped one day would be performed and appreciated as it stood. For the very reasons he avowed, it is unlikely that Boris Godunov would initially have become well known without Rimsky-Korsakov’s modifications. Because in recent decades Mussorgsky’s own versions have at last become more widely performed, and since David Lloyd-Jones’s performing edition of 1975 appeared the popularity of Rimsky-Korsakov’s version has diminished, Rimsky-Korsakov’s vital contribution to the opera’s fate must not be overlooked. That said, the psychological power and originality of Mussorgsky’s own music, whether in the 1869 or the 1872 version, remains unrivalled.
Synopsis of the Opera - 1869 Version
The action takes place over the seven years between 1598-1605, and covers the accession and reign of Boris Godounov through to his death in 1605. During the first years of the century Russia afflicted by famine and pestilence, and the historian Nicholas Riasanovsky has estimated that in Moscow alone, 100,000 people died. The plot presupposes that Dimitri, the son of Ivan the Terrible's seventh marriage, has been murdered in suspicious circumstances which point to Boris. On Ivan's death the throne has passed to Fyodor, the Tsar's son by his first marriage whose wife, Irina, is Boris's sister. On Fyodor's death Irina goes into retreat at the Novodievichy monastery near Moscow, where both she and Boris refuse the throne.
A crowd is assembled in the courtyard of the Novodievichy monastery. A Police Officer shouts at the people, ordering them to kneel down and beg Boris to accept the throne, which they duly do without understanding what is happening. Shchelkalov comes out of the monastery with the news that Boris is adamant in declining the crown. A chorus of blind pilgrims sing of their fears of anarchy and instruct the still bewildered crowd to don white robes, take up their icons and go forth to acclaim their Tsar. The Policeman returns with fresh insults and tells the people to assemble at the Kremlin the following day for further instructions.
The Coronation Scene opens with Prince Shuisky calling on the people to acclaim their new Tsar. Boris emerges from the Cathedral of the Assumption and is hailed by the populace. He appears troubled by foreboding and prays to the spirit of Fyodor that he will reign justly.
Five years later, in 1603, the monk Pimen is in his cell about to complete his chronicle of Russian history. The novice Grigory wakes from a recurring nightmare in which he climbs a tower and the people of Moscow mock him until he falls to the ground. Pimen calms him. Grigory asks enviously about Pimen's past, banqueting at the court of Ivan and fighting glorious battles in Lithuania, but Pimen answers him with an account of the goodness of Tsars Ivan and Fyodor in contrast to the murderer Boris.Pimen had been exiled to Uglich at the time the Tsarevich Dmitri was murdered, saw the body and witnessed the confession of the men apprehended that Boris was responsible. Grigory asks how old the Tsarevich would have been and Pimen tells him that Dimitri would now be his age. Pimen goes for matins and as he does, Grigory vows to bring Boris to justice.
In the next scene, set in an inn on the Lithuanian border, the hostess hears the approach of two wandering monks, Varlaam and Missail, who are begging for alms. They are followed by Grigory, in disguise for fear of capture. They order wine and Varlaam sings a song boasting of Tsar Ivan's famous defeat of the fortress of Karzan, with thousands of Tatar casualites. Grigory, on questioning the Hostess, learns that sentries have been alerted for a fugitive: no sooner has she promised to tell him a way to avoid them than soldiers arrive. Officer is looking for a renegade monk but cannot read the name on the warrant. Grigory tries to pass off Varlaam as the wanted man. Now under arrest, Varlaam manages to decipher the warrant and identifies Grigory who escapes in the confusion.
In the Tsar's apartments in the Kremlin later the same year, Boris's son, the Tsarevich Fyodor, is studying the map of Muscovy and his sister Xenia is lamenting the death of the beloved prince. Boris enters and consoles Xenia. Fyodor shows his knowledge of the map and Boris tells him to work hard as he will one day inherit the realm. He counsels him against false advisors. Alone, Boris relects on his troubled five-year reign despairing that everything he does for the people only seems to make them blame him for everything, even accusing him of the deaths of Tsar Fyodor, of Xenia's bridegroom, the poisoning of his own sister and the death of the Tsarevich Dimitri. Prince Shuisky is announced by a Boyar who whispers that he has been part of a conspiracy and is expecting a messenger from Krakow. Shuisky protests his loyalty and warns Boris about the support that the pretender Dimitri has gained in Poland. The Tsar questions him about Tsarevich Dimitri's death and Shusky describes seeing twelve decomposing corpses and next to them the unspoilt, pure body of the child Dimitri who was smiling. When Shuisky leaves, Boris vents the torment he is suffering, haunted by visions of the Tsarevich.
The year is 1605. In the square before the Cathedral of St Basil the blessed in Moscow there is growing unrest among the people. As the service ends the crowd's calls for Boris's death are silenced by old men warning they will get themselves killed. A group of urchins tease the Holy Fool (Simpleton) and steal his only coin, a kobek. As Boris and his retinue leave the cathedral the people beg him desperately to give them bread. To Shuisky's horror, the Simpleton appeals to Boris to kill the urchins, just as he killed the Tsarevich, and then refuses Boris's entreaty for his prayers, saying he could not pray for "Tsar Herod". The crowd scatters and leaves the Simpleton singing in innocence of the terrible plight of the starving Russian people.
At the Granovitaya Hall in the Kremlin on 13 April 1605. Shchelkalov reads out the edict condemning the Pretender, Shuisky enters and describes how he has seen Boris racked with guilt and reports on his unstable mental condition. Boris falls and sends for his son Fyodor. He begs forgiveness of God and, after acclaiming his son as the new Tsar, he dies.