“ . . . in youth we greedily desire the joys of love, but only quell the hunger of the heart with momentary possession . . .”
Do you believe this guy? You’d never find a Spaniard saying that! Mirabeau, FD, and I just returned from a rest-cure in Siberia, where I had a chance to catch up on some reading, mostly Russian classics, in heavily used, torn-up editions with poignant marginal notes left by previous readers.
The subject of many of the classic works of Russian culture is Russia itself, and how its people (usually depicted as a crowd or mob) seem to sway this way then that, seeking leadership, sustenance, and hope.
Boris Godunov was power hungry, his subjects just hungry, in an age when the perennially ungovernable Russia was moving from one dynasty to another. Though he wished to “do good” for the people of Russia, he was ruthless in acquiring the throne, providing a complicated emotional inner life perfect for operatic treatment.
The real-life historical Boris (1551-1605) became the subject of a short drama by Pushkin (1799-1837) which was set to music as an opera by Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881).
You know, I heard recently that Musorgsky probably changed the spelling of his name from Musorsky (garbage-man) to Musorgsky (musician).
“I want the sound to express the word directly. I want truth.” (The words of Dargomizhky, the Russian composer of “The Stone Guest,” a version of the Don Giovanni story.) They could easily be Musorgsky’s words. “Boris” had a strong influence on French composers, especially Debussy, who were seeking another way to make operas not under the influence of Wagner or Italian models.
Unfortunately, Musorgsky often found his truth in a bottle of vodka, leading to his untimely death, extra work for St. Petersburg’s “musorskys,” and a sense that his work needed “improving” by later generations.
Musorgsky was a member of a group of composers known as the “moguchaya kuchka” (the “mighty handful,” or, “the 5”), who rebelled against “western” European compositional values and incorporated authentic Russian musical sounds in their works. Musorgsky uses bits of Russian folk melodies and hymns from the Orthodox liturgy, as well as modes (scales organized in ways other than the old major/minor polarity) to give the music its flavor.
Musorgsky revised the opera from its original (1869) version, because of complaints about its “rawness,” lack of female characters, and political content. The revised version became a success in Russia, despite bans on depicting the Tsar on stage. Composer Rimsky-Korsakoff “cleaned up” what he believed to be Musorgsky’s primitive orchestration, and the work was heard only in that form for generations. Shostakovich and others in the twentieth century made their own versions as well, but today it is considered correct to present the original (or a hybrid of Musorgsky’s own two versions) with no “improvements.”
The title character, Boris, is one of the greatest opera roles for bass, and was popularized by Chaliapin in early twentieth century Paris, on Diaghilev’s tours, in the Rimsky-Korsakoff version. In many stagings, Boris, whose guilt at having murdered the boy who was supposed to become Tsar has caught up with him, falls to his death down an enormous staircase outside the palace, but this detail isn’t in Pushkin’s play.
Surrounded by treachery on all sides, as well as within himself, Boris is a parable relevant to our time and to anyone who follows political struggles the world over. Although the main subject of Pushkin’s play is Boris, when seeing the opera, I always feel that Musorgsky’s hero is really the crowd.
© 2009 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs