NOTES BY DR. ROBERT STEVENSON
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) composed the most admired of all Russian operas in two versions. The first, written in 1868-69, consists of seven scenes. In the second version, dating from 1871-72 and 1874, he dropped Scene 6 of the initial version at the same time adding two new scenes set in Poland plus a so-called "Revolution" scene set in a forest clearing near Kromy. Meanwhile he completely rewrote Scene 5 of the first version and made important changes in all other scenes except Scenes 2 and 7 of the 1868-69 version. Rimsky-Korsakoff, with whom Mussorgsky shared rooms in 1871-72, supplied still another two versions both based on Mussorgsky's second. In 1896 he re-orchestrated, rebarred, slashed and trimmed. A decade later he restored his most notorious cuts but continued revising the order of the last two scenes to conclude with Boris's death. Further to cajole Parisian taste during the first production (May, 1908) of the opera outside Russia, he composed two inserts in the Coronation Scene.
As chief source for the librettos of both first and second versions, Mussorgsky chose Pushkin's chronicle play Boris Godunov. Covering events from the coronation of Boris Godunov in 1598 to his death in April 1605, followed by the "suicide" of his widow and son, and the accession of the pretender Dimitry, Pushkin's play was written in 1825. However, its explosive political overtones prevented its being cleared for public presentation until 1866. The St. Petersburg premiere of 16 scenes was still further delayed until September of 1870. The seven scenes comprising the libretto of the first version of Mussorgsky's opera bear the following relation to Pushkin's play.
Sc. 1, loosely founded on Pushkin's scenes II and III, shows the Russian populace huddled in the courtyard of the Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow. On order of the police they bewail Boris's refusal to be crowned tsar. Prince Shchelkalov emerges to announce that Boris is still reluctant. Blind wandering pilgrims enter singing praise to the Almighty and then disappear into the monastery.
Sc. 2, incorporating some of Boris's speech in Pushkin's scene IV, takes place in a square of the Moscow Kremlin. Boris's feigned reluctance has yielded to the importuning of the boyars and the populace. He enters on his way to the Coronation.
Sc. 3, equalling scene V takes place in 1603 in a cell of the Chudov Monastery. Boris's five-year-old reign has been plagued by disasters. An old monk Pimen is engaged in writing a chronicle. He drops his pen to tell the young novice Grigory how in 1591 the seven-year-old heir to the throne, Dimitry, had been murdered in Uglich at Boris's foul behest.
Sc. 4, equivalent to Pushkin's scene VIII shows the escaped novice Grigory haunting an inn on the Lithuanian border in company with two renegade monks, Varlaam and Misail. Varlaam sings a roistering folksong not included in the original Pushkin. Police officers enter searching for Grigory, with a warrant to arrest him for impersonating the dead tsarevich Dimitry. Grigory by a stratagem confuses the arresting officers and jumps out the window.
Sc. 5 based on scenes VII and X takes place in the tsar's palace at Moscow. Xenia, Boris's daughter, bewails her dead betrothed. Feodor, heir to the throne, studies a map of the realm that is to be his. Boris enters and tries to console Xenia, who then leaves with her nurse. In his long monologue that follows her exit, Boris reviews the calamities of his five-year reign. Not only do his subjects blame him for the death of Dimitry in 1591 but for every later misfortune. Prince Shuisky intrudes to tell him that the false Dimitry has escaped to Poland. Boris asks for assurance that the true Dimitry did die. Shuisky confirms his death, but adds that Dimitry's body remained incorruptible. Boris chokes on this news.
Sc. 6, equalling Pushkin's XVIII is found only in Mussorgsky's first version. The square before St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow, is crowded with poor people. Inside the cathedral Grigory has been anathematized. But the crowd knows that "Dimitry's" invading troops are not far away. A simpleton in the throng asks Boris to kill the thieves who stole his new kopek, "just as you murdered Dimitry." Boris asks the simpleton to pray for him but the simpleton refuses to pray for a Herod. Instead, he weeps for Russia.
Sc. 7 founded on XVI and XXI begins with the Duma in session. Shuisky whom the assembled boyars rightly suspect of being a traitor recounts having peeped through a keyhole to see Boris in a frenzy. Boris enters driven by the murdered child's ghost. Pimen is summoned to confirm that the child died and is now a miracle-worker. Crushed by his guilt, Boris expires.
The contrasts between Mussorgsky's original seven-scene version of 1868-69, and his final version premiered January 27/February 8, 1874 with triumphant applause at St. Petersburg have been aptly summarized by the Russian critic Boris Aasfiev (1884-1949) who together with Paul Lamm (1882-1951) began the critical edition of Mussorgsky's complete works. In a monograph published in 1928 Aasfiev wrote: "The stark music of the original version, composed between the autumn of 1868 when Mussorgsky first became a civil servant in the Forestry Department and the winter of 1869, far better suits his initial conception. In 1868-69 he intended the opera to be a social and political tragedy, rather than the personal tragedy of Boris's guilty conscience. The seven-scene version is throughout more coherent and better unified. To its credit as massive public spectacle, Mussorgsky's second version of 1871-72 and 1874 is less grim. This is the version in which his friend Stassov's telling him that parrots and chiming clocks first reached Russia in Boris's reign suggested to him such an episode as the parrot in the children's scene and the chimes and puppets in the hallucination scene. The second version with its added love interest better captures the attention of the sentimental public. The fact that Boris repents of his part in the 1591 murder also better enlists the audience's sympathy. No longer does he remain merely a guilt-ridden Macbeth. To conform with his altered viewpoint, Mussorgsky infused into the music of his second version those warm, lyrical nuances that by turn portray qualms of conscience and prayer. The changed concept of Boris permitted the use of music borrowed from his unfinished opera of 1863-66 based on Flaubert's novel Salammb˘ for the middle section of Boris's great monologue."
So far as the motives impelling Mussorgsky to water down his original concept, some historians have argued that he was driven solely by outer compulsions. To get a first performance of any kind, he had to submit to the tyranny of the theatrical managers and producers, claim those critics who prefer only the original seven scene version. Mussorgsky himself endorsed his own original version, they say, when in 1876, two years after the premiere of his second version, he deplored having added to it the final Revolution scene. This added scene should be henceforth omitted, he told a correspondent: "In that scene for the one and only time in my life I calumniated the Russian people: I showed peasants baiting a boyar, their prisoner. That was wrong: Russians may punish, may kill, but they do not mock and taunt their enemies."
His concern for the role of the Russian people explains the immense emphasis on choral music throughout both first and second versions- a concern so intense that one famous New York critic after its Metropolitan Opera premiere (in the Rimsky-Korsakoff recension, Arturo Toscanini conducting, March 19, 1913) protested against the "absurd exaggeration of the chorus's role, which ought to be that of an agreeable diversion and interlude allowing the principal singers, the tenor and the soprano, respite in the intervals of their love-making."
The 1878-79 version lacks any lovemaking whatsoever. With or without lovemaking, Mussorgsky's scoring is always lean - despite his having used in both versions an orchestra of conventional size (plus a piano in the Coronation scene and harp in the added Polish act). It was Rimsky-Korsakoff who was responsible for the glitter and orchestral opulence that most opera-goers nowadays associate irrevocably with this "absolutely, personal, inimitable work, one of the greatest masterpieces of nineteenth-century opera."