San Francisco Opera | His Opera to the Nation: Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’

His Opera to the Nation: Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’

This essay was first published in the October-November 2008 issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine

“If you don’t know how great this country is, I know someone who does; Russia.”
–Robert Frost

From the heroics of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, through the twilit bourgeois world of Chekhov to the vast epics of War and Peace, Russia’s culture is obsessed with one thing and one thing only, the country out of which it grew. It is then no coincidence that two of the greatest “national” operas in the canon, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, are both by a Russian. By calling on periods in his country’s past, beset by peril and religious and political separatism, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky was able to create recognizable parables for his compatriots. The performance history of his third opera Boris Godunov may have obscured its important message about personal and corporate responsibility, but seen in its original version, untrammelled by later Romantic posturing, we are able to uncover the story of a man dogged by the guilt of what he has done.

Mussorgsky was born in Karevo, a small village between St. Petersburg and Moscow, in 1839 to a wealthy land-owning family. Although he worked primarily as a civil servant, through his education in St. Petersburg he was assimilated into the burgeoning nationalistic culture. He assisted in the preparation of A Life for the Tsar, an opera also about seventeenth century Russian history by Glinka (then the doyenne of the Russian operatic circuit). But it was not into that world that Mussorgsky initially placed himself; he chose the filigree and perfume of the French romantics (themselves at the height of their fashion, particularly in French-influenced “European” parts of Russia, such as St. Petersburg). His first opera Salammbô, based on Flaubert’s exotic novel, was never completed, starting a rather clouded career of incomplete operas. Though again no comprehensive score survives, a comic opera The Marriage quickly followed. Keen to test his mettle against his contemporaries, Mussorgsky was involved with an opera-ballet project called Mlada, on which he was to have collaborated with Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Minkus, and Mussorgsky. The project was sadly too ambitious for its own good, and many of the composers eventually stripped off their unfinished contributions to furnish later personal projects. It was only with the nationalist epics of Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina that Mussorgsky achieved lasting success, returning to the world of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar with which he began his contact with Russian opera.

Even while working on The Marriage, Mussorgsky’s head had already been turned by the text of his masterpiece Boris Godunov. He had recently met the professor of Russian literature of the day, Vladimir Nikolai, through Mussorgsky’s own friend and Glinka’s sister Lyudmila Shestakova. Nikolai was one of the leading authorities on the writer Alexander Pushkin, the master of Russian literature. The impact of Pushkin on the country’s culture cannot be underestimated, and by merely looking through a list of his completed novels, poems, and dramas, several operatic titles pop out, not least Eugene Onegin, but also Boris Godunov, Ruslan and Lyudmila (later used by Rimsky Korsakov), and The Queen of Spades (the basis for Tchaikovsky’s opera). His was a body of work that was diverse, Romantic, and thoroughly imbued with an understanding of Russia’s history and culture. Despite an influential position in court later in his life, Pushkin fell foul of the authorities on a number of occasions. An outspoken and radical liberal, the Tsar’s men kept him under strict surveillance. It was during a period of almost house arrest that he turned to the subject of the Tsar Boris Godunov. Recalling one of the most divided and contentious periods in Russia’s history, it was a daring choice; unsurprisingly, it was not until 1866, nearly thirty years after Pushkin’s death, that his capricious drama was published. Written perhaps hastily and under considerable pressure, Boris Godunov lacks the finely wrought textures of Pushkin’s other works, but Mussorgsky was enchanted by the grand historical sweep of its narrative when Nikolai introduced him to the play in late 1868. Boris has murdered Dimitri, the rightful heir to the Russian throne. Although he accepts the crown and the acclaim of his people, he is haunted by his past. A novice monk Grigory is informed by one of his seniors of the true history of Dmitry’s death and sets out to pose as the murdered Dimitri and seize the Russian crown. Boris’s rule is deeply troubled and the people demand to know the truth about their history. Boris protects an accusatory simpleton, but the guilt is overwhelming. As Boris dies, begging God’s forgiveness, he names his son Fyodor the new Tsar.

Working rapidly and supplementing the Pushkin with an in-depth study of Nikolai Karamzin’s eight-volume epic History of the Russian State, the libretto, vocal score, and full score were all completed by Mussorgsky working on his own within a space of fourteen months, signing off the score in December 1869. As he deemed it such an important piece, Mussorgsky was keen to get it performed as prestigiously and as soon as possible. He sent it to the board of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg. A brutal rejection followed, written by the dramatist and translator Pavel Fyodorov, in February 1871:

Dear Sir, By the order of the Director of the Imperial Theatres, I have the honor to advise you that upon examination by the Musical Theatre Committee of the score of your composition, Boris Godunov, this opera was not approved for production on the Russian stage of the Imperial Theatres. Returning the aforesaid score and the libretto of the opera, I sincerely ask you to accept this expression of my respects.

Although many reasons were given for its rejection, including the absence of any significant female roles in the opera, the Imperial Theatres were clearly nervous about what sort of reaction this bloody tale from Russian history would receive. Representations of the Tsar were banned from the operatic stage, even though technically the text itself could have been deemed acceptable. Despite his renown in St. Petersburg circles, Mussorgsky was not, they thought, at the zenith of his career. This quixotic work was seen merely as the addled doodlings of a relatively young composer on a subject that Pushkin and Mussorgsky in his turn would have been wiser to leave well alone.

The freshness and originality of the music nonplussed the honourable members of the committee who reproved the composer for, among other things, the absence of a reasonably important female role. […] Much of the faultfinding was simply ridiculous. […] Mussorgsky, hurt and offended, withdrew his score, but later though the matter over and decided to make radical changes and additions.

So wrote Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, one of Mussorgsky’s closest allies, who later performed a decisive role in bringing Boris and Mussorgsky’s later national polemic Khovanshchina to the stage. True, the opera is overtly masculine, though that was more of an indictment on the position of women in Russian society than on the narrative itself. But a sense of the council’s myopia when reviewing this startling and original work is palpable. Sadly, however, doubt had set in and Mussorgsky, desperate to achieve fame and respect with his work, set to making substantial revisions.

What ensued was the “Romanticisation” of the original Boris Godunov. The first version was perhaps too conversational (with audiences more readily used to a verse libretto), so Mussorgsky changed the entire tone of the work with the addition of several large set pieces. But these new flourishes were not tacked on to the original seven scenes; rather they became part of the melée that made up Mussorgsky’s operatic style, with prose texts for the peasant scenes and richer harmonies and verse for scenes with royalty. The brutal sweep of the original was smoothed out and the composer, again turning to Karamzin’s History of the Russian State, managed to tease out its history so that an entirely new act at the Castle of Sandomir in Poland was created. This allowed for the character of Princess Marina Mniszek, whom Grigory admires, replete with a lush harmonic palate and that sought-after central female role. Repeating the Simpleton’s song of ”Weep, Russian people, starving people” in an epilogue after Boris’s death, with Dimitri (Grigory) approaching Moscow, made for a powerful conclusion, and with it Mussorgsky actively reflected “all the Russias” on stage. The composer had managed to conquer the surface level criticisms of the council at the Imperial Theatres, but while the 1874 premiere of this “revised” version was successful, it wasn’t long before the opera disappeared from the Russian stage. Rimsky-Korsakov wondered whether the story had again displeased the Imperial Family, particularly as time had passed and Russia’s sense of inner security felt increasingly undermined. With a drastically edited and cut form of the 1874 vocal score appearing in 1896, under the editorship of Rimsky-Korsakov—who later revised his own thoughts on the piece with a further edition in 1908 (largely re-orchestrated by his own hand)—the opera faced a tricky and deeply confusing future.

Boris Godunov is not alone in having a perplexing performance history with several editions. Janáček’s first masterpiece Jenůfa was also re-orchestrated by another hand, thereby making it also sound more romantic; it has only recently been restored to its original version. The well-meaning Richard Strauss, who conducted the premiere of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, tinkered with the orchestrations extensively, and there are, of course, multiple versions in different languages of Verdi’s Don Carlo(s). But Boris has a life all of its own. Replete with its own well-meaning protagonists and new documents coming to light, the history of the re-establishment of the “proper” version of the opera has tended to dominate, obscuring the story of the piece itself. In short, there are three separate versions. The original, as composed by Mussorgsky and rejected by the Imperial Theatres, which is pithy, unsentimental, and as brutal as the history it reflects. The second version, also composed by Mussorgsky, but edited, cut, adapted, and re-orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov (though this version too has several incarnations). The third and most recent, by David Lloyd-Jones (first performed in London in 1983). is an edition which allows for performance of either the first or the second version, though has more commonly been performed in an amalgam of the two, taking from Mussorgsky’s original the intent and pugnacity of its spirit but allowing for the definite glories of the revision. It was only in 1997 that the authenticity debate came full circle and Valery Gergiev audaciously returned to Mussorgsky’s first version proper with a performance at the (now) Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. But even then, audiences found the musical text without the cheerful innkeeper’s song in the inn on the Lithuanian border, somewhat po-faced. The versions of Boris divide as much as they unite, and an ingenious 1998 CD of both the original and revised versions in the same release (conducted by Gergiev) allowed listeners to finally consider them alongside each other. Depending on the version performed, Boris Godunov can be a very different opera. The first version, used in this production, is a deeply personal tale of a flawed and troubled leader—haunted, pursued, and finally killed by the guilt of what he has done. In the second, widely recorded version, that personal tragedy is framed in a much larger, corporate narrative, made yet more overt in the lachrymose repetition of the Simpleton’s chilling refrain.

The brilliance of Boris Godunov and the reason why performers and musical academics keep returning to its perplexing torso of music, editions, and text, is that it is one of the greatest examples in the operatic repertoire of a personal tale having a much larger significance. To compare it with the tales of King Lear or Hamlet is no exaggeration. Like in those two great plays, while we are drawn into the main protagonist’s thought processes, triumphs, doubts, and ultimate destruction, we also see the effect of their actions on the world around them. Boris has the additional significance and the echo of the division between personal and corporate responsibility that has divided Russian history from the time of the work’s composition (and before) through to the current crisis in the Caucasus region. Seeing Russian history reflected in its culture is central to understanding the great surge of creativity that came out of nineteenth-century Russia. As Orlando Figes describes in his enlightening and comprehensive chronicle Natasha’s Dance, “Art can be looked at as a record of belief. In a way that was extraordinary, if not unique to Russia, the country’s artistic energy was almost wholly given to the quest to grasp the idea of its nationality.” The artists of the time were concerned with bridging the gap between the peasants who, by means of their lack of education, were alienated at the bottom of the scale—depicted so clearly in the figure of the Simpleton—and the court. By understanding the many guises of Boris Godunov, the history behind it and the opera’s significance for the time that followed its first troubled steps into the operatic world, we can, as Figes surmises, allow ourselves to look through “a window on to a nation’s inner life.” By seeing their history on stage or depicted in literature, the Russian people were able to understand who they were and who they might become.


Gavin Plumley is a British-based musicologist and has written and broadcast widely about opera at the turn of the last century.

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