A Tsar and a musician walk into a bar…

So, what about an opera about a Tsar, written by a serf’s grandson and which was rejected by the Maryinsky Theatre just because (allegedly) it lacked a leading female character, then turning into a massive success (but not with the Imperial family) only to be adapted, shortened, reconstructed and who knows what else after its alcoholic composer died in the exact day of his 42nd birthday? That could be worth a little more reading…

Modest Mussorgsky’s father was the son of a serf. He, eventually, was recognised as a noble and owned a vast estate which contained eighteen villages at Karevo not that far from nowadays Russian frontier with Belarus and a rough 250 miles from Saint Petersburg, then the capital. Granny was still alive when Modest was a small boy and we can only imagine the strange thing that a noble man son to a serf woman was at the time. Yet they were not part of the very affluent. Serfs and nobles would be important in the future of Modest; but before that, see him learning to play piano, taking lessons from Mum, listening to the folk tunes his nurse would sing. Then at the age of thirteen, he was sent to Saint Petersburg’s cadet school, joining in the event the Preobrazhensky Guards. Not exactly the same than at home.

There he spent the next years, getting in contact with some of the leading members of Russian musical society, as Balakirev or Borodin. But in 1861, the serfs would force him back home at the age of 21. Well, to be honest, it was the Tsar, not the serfs, who forced him back. Being not a really brilliant nor decisive leader, Alexander II was somewhat convinced, possibly because of the pressure enacted by his resourceful aunt Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, that serfs needed some sort of emancipation. That, in a huge autocracy where education and alphabetization levels were appalling and, as we have seen, lesser nobles owned almost twenty villages and all in them, people inclusive.

In a slow, conservative way, legislation was almost secretly developed through the years, until, in March 1861, it was signed by the Tsar amidst great security measures and the quartering of troops in the villages to prevent bouts of violence which were, at least, expected. And there were lots of them. The legislation was a maze of dispositions in which the illiterate serfs would got lost, and the scheme was so noble-proned that in fact it deteriorated the condition of many a serf. Now they were, more or less, free. But they have to somehow buy their freedom from their former masters, taking government loans during a transition period of two years to buy the lands they were living in from the landowners (that the serfs should be owners of their own land was considered an indispensable requisite for the emancipation). But, this way, they were indebted so they ended up working for the same landowners and earning misery wages just to repay the loans. Moreover, they were dependent on the same landowners for pasture, water supply. Increasing population add pressure to rents and harvest failures lead to famine, overwhelming poverty and a crowd of sullen peasants with dreams of revenge. And that will come, in time.

But for the moment, we have young Guard Modest back at home, helping older brother Filaret to recover from the blow, much impoverished, and with a strong feeling of sympathy with the peasants and their truly Russian traditions. There he was to spent two long years, away from the cultural life of the capital and, probably, increasing a penchant for alcohol that had surely began at the Guards, strong drinkers almost by definition. But it came to an end and after the transition period he was sent back to Saint Petersburg to earn a living for himself working in the Administration, in the Central Engineering Authority. There, he went back to his music (some early pieces had been played in meetings of the Balakirev circle in his Preobrazhensky years) and started a line of work trying to get music to represent human speech in the most exact way possible, an intention which he will pursue for all his life and was not always well understood (if any) by critics and public alike.

Soon music was the main aim in his life…when alcohol wasn’t (he had his first bouts of dipsomania after his mother’s death in 1865). But not to the liking of everyone: allegedly, either Balakirev or Rimsky-Korsakov, members, as Mussorgsky, of the “Mighty Five” (a group pf musicians including the afore-mentioned plus Cui and Borodin, all of them intent in a “russification of music” against the western influences then dominating the Russian scene) scribbled in the original score that the today popular “Night on the Bare Mountain” was “a load of rubbish”. He was very keen on experimenting with sounds and harmony, and to add distinctive “Russian” tunes to the score. That to add to the already mentioned work with music and human speech.

Anyway, he kept on composing, particularly after being downsized from the Ministry of State Property in 1867. He turned to opera and, after some sketching based in Gogol’s works that was judged too experimental even by himself, he took to write about Tsar Boris Godunov, the Romanovs not allowing any of their dynasty to be shown on the stage. Using a dramatic work from Pushkin as a draft, he adapted scenes and wrote the vocal score in nine months or so, and the full score some months later, by the end of 1869. Then he submitted the score to the Imperial Theatres, but was rejected in a clear call of 6 to 1 seemingly for not having a female role of any weight in it (but probably because, again, of the amount of experimentation Mussorgsky had thrown in the score). Difficult was then the task, if he had to find a woman of importance in the world of XVI/XVII Russia that was Tsar Boris age.

Boris Godunov (1551-1605) was regent during the reign of Ivan the Terrible’s son Fedor, having got into the Imperial family by his sister’s marriage with Ivan’s son. Raising from the ranks, he seemed to have started as an archer in the guard, then to the Oprichnina (Ivan’s most feared personal guard and secret police). A shrewd politician from the start, before getting into the Imperial family he had secured recognition marrying the Oprichnina head’s daughter. Master of war, secrets and political marriage, he was appointed for the Regency Council together with Vasili Shuiski and some Romanovs in 1584. In 1586, the Tsar’s uncle Nikita Romanovich, until then the head of the Council died, opening a space for Boris to play his cards at the steering wheel of the Empire. After suppressing a plot which tried to divorce the tsar from his sister, he became Tsar in all but name from 1591 to 1598 when, on the event of the Tsar’s death he sized the throne, in part as a mean of self-protection against the Romanovs.

His government was prudent, keen on diplomacy but firm with sword when needed: he signed an extended truce with Poland in 1587, peace with Sweden in 1595, built a chain of fortifications along the Volga and Don rivers to prevent attacks from the Tatars. Expanded colonization of Siberia, gave support to the fur trade and encouraged trading relations with England. All sound movements. But he did something which will have consequences even as far as Mussorgsky’s own life: in 1597 he issued a decree forbidding the transfer of peasants from one landowner to other. Aimed to secure revenue, in fact it tied serfs to the soil in the most oppressive way. No wonder, then, that after some crop failures in the early 1600s, peasants and serfs revolted (probably helped by the Romanovs, who had staged a coup against Godunov two years before), only to be defeated in a pitched battle near the capital by the Tsar’s Army. Anyway, they resorted to support Dmitri, the pretender, an alleged son of Ivan (the real Dmitri had died some years before; the were no less than twenty Dmitris in a decade).

Harvest failure and famine were shown to the masses as proof of Boris lack of divine support, being “just” and elected tsar (and even that was quite controversial) and not a member of the Rurikid family who had ruled the country foe the last seven hundred years and, for the impoverished, illiterate peasants and serfs, were close to God and was almighty. So every new Dmitri got some support somewhere (plus Romanovs’ aid), so giving Boris a lot of trouble in his last years. Probably the strain of the fight took on his health and, finally, he died of a stroke in April 1605, a good ruler with a bad reputation which will cost dearly to his wife and son when the supporters of Dmitri take the capital some months after his death.

That was the story but Mussorgsky, always focused on precision and accuracy, had to choose between historical accuracy or precision on taken the Theatre assessment if he wanted the opera to be staged. Always going a step too far, as in musical experimentation, he opted for delivering a radical transformation: not only did he created a main female character but he added three scenes, cut one, reworked another one, added a prima donna role and song for the existing female roles and even give more way for the Dmitri role. If they were not happy with the first version, they had to be with this one.

In the end the work was accepted and premiered on January 1874, with phenomenal success and general acclamation, with the composer taking twenty curtain calls. Not surprisingly, though, there was someone in the crowd not very happy with the show. Some accounts tell us of Gran Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, a member of the Romanov family enraged and even “foaming at the mouth” because of the music, it seemed, because of some political implications in the plot, some assumed. He allegedly said that it was “a shame to all Russia”.

Was it because of that, because of censorship or, most probably because of financial issues, the fact is that Boris Godunov was cut, revised, and deformed from the very beginning, even with Mussorgsky’s acknowledgment. To this we must add that Boris was probably a still immature work: the music is crude, there seems to be not a link between scenes (which may come from the fact that it was modeled from Pushkin’s drama scenes). The music is quite experimental, the tunes sometimes get out of hand, brass and percussion have more significant roles than was (and is) expected. But, in line with the composer’s aim of uniting music and human speech, dramatic choruses are superb, vocal parts of a rare quality and dramatization amazing in an era when, usually, operas were so dependant on the flashy brilliance of singers, regardless of dramatic coherence or psychological studies. Had Mussorgsky continued writing operas he could have become a master of vocal composition; regrettably he was already on his way down.

Every setback, every death of a relation put Modest again in the trail to tears and in the search for alcohol. Bouts of dipsomania were ever increasingly strong and frequent and he had to resort to touring the country as some old contralto pianist for a living. He couldn’t finish his commissions: just a piano score for pictures at an exhibition, Khovanschina was left unfinished, so it was Sorochintsy fair. He was trough hardships for the best part of his last years despite the help of his friends that sometimes felt impossible to keep on giving for a man who spent everything in drinking.

In February 1881 he had some musical success, again and for the last time, with a concert in which his Destruction of Senacherib was conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov. After that, like his character Boris, his health declined rapidly, suffering some alcoholic epilepsy fits. He was interned in the Military Hospital and got some relief. Even some improvements were shown. But to avail. After seemingly spending hist last coins in cognac, he died in 28th Match 1881.

What it is worse, he suffered a second death when his work was despised even by his friends and colleagues. Rimsky-Korsakov reworked Boris Godunov, altering the score, the harmonies, even the order of the scenes. Shostakovich followed suit in the XX century. He was accused of poor technique, lack of polishness. Khovanschina was also “completed” by Rimsky-Korsakov in the same lines. But recent approach to Boris Godunov in the original score shows new appreciation for the awkward orchestration, the russification in the score, the rough and unrefined vocal lines that soft singers would not accept, used as they were to Rimsky-Korsakov’s ones. So general consideration of Mussorgsky as it happens with Tsar Boris is improving with time. Fine for a man who once stated that “Art is a mean towards communication with human beings, not and end in itself”. That he felt the impulse to communicate through the bottom of a bottle rather than through his music is a loss for all those human begins willing to communicate.

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