To Be read before
Modest Petrovitch Mussorgsky (born Karevo, March 21st 1839 ; died Saint Petersburg, March 28th 1881) spent his early childhood in the Russian countryside where his mother taught him the rudiments of the piano. At the age of ten, he was taken to Saint Petersburg by his father, where he was enrolled in school. It was there that he consolidated his musical education. In 1852, with a military career already planned for him, he entered the School for Cadets of the Guard and, in 1856, he was made an officer of an infantry regiment. However, that same year, he met Balakirev and decided to abandon the military and devote himself entirely to his music. After a fruitful period during which Mussorgsky composed his first vocal works, relations between the two men deteriorated and Modest, prone now to increasingly recurring fits of nerves, suffered his first physical and mental breakdown. From 1868 to 1875 though, his condition stabilised. For a time, he lived with Rimsky-Korsakov and he began composing with renewed passion. He completed the definitive version of his great opera Boris Godunov in 1874 (the version with the Polish Act), The Nursery, a series of melodies, and Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano suite. He also drew up the outline of Khovanshchina. But this period of stability turned out to be short-lived. Soon after, Mussorgsky found himself drifting from one lodging to another. Neglected by his friends for his excessive drinking, the wayward Mussorgsky would ultimately die in solitude in a Saint Petersburg military hospital, leaving Sorochintsy Fair, a comic-opera inspired by Gogol’s tale, unfinished.
It was the critic Stassov who first gave Mussorgsky the idea for Khovanshchina. In effect, after Boris Godunov, the work was intended to be the second part of a trilogy of historical operas (the third was never completed). The subject refers back to a specific period in Russian history : namely the reign of Peter the Great (1682 and the years immediately thereafter). It was a time of violent confrontation between the reform-minded proponents of the new orthodoxy and the Old Believers. The schism ended with the victory of the reformers (represented by the Tsar) and the destruction of the traditions and ancestral faith of the old Russia. The word “Khovanshchina” was first used by the Tsar himself to designate the riots which were primarily provoked by Prince Khovansky : the term derives from the proper noun, just as “Chouan” gave rise to “chouannerie” in French (“Ned Ludd” gave rise to “Luddite” in English). Unlike Boris Godunov, there is no principal character in the work, just elements making up a larger tableau. Similarly, the people do not constitute a single bloc, but subdivide into numerous groups (the Streltsy, Old Believers, the Muscovite mob, etc). Nevertheless, like Boris, Khovanshchina portrays a key moment in Russia’s past in which personal tragedy is inseparably intertwined with historical events.
In terms of composition, La Khovanshchina sutters from the intermittent fashion in which it was composed (between 1873 and 1880). On Mussorgsky’s death, with the exception of the end of Act II and the final scene of Act V, the vocal score was almost complete. However, only two fragments of Act III had been orchestrated. In order for the work to be performed, it needed the aid of other musicians. Rimsky-Korsakov was the first to take on the task, but in the process, he cut out a large part of the score. In 1959, Shostakovich reorches-trated the work, keeping most of Mussorgsky’s music intact. It is this version that has been chosen for the current performances.
The first performance
Khovanshchina was first performed on February 21st 1886 by a troupe of amateurs at the Kononov Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
The work at the Paris Opera
Khovanshchina was first performed at the Palais Garnier on April 13th, 1923. The production, in French, was directed by Serge Koussevitzky and produced by Alexandre Sanine. In a revival the following year, Feodor Chaliapin played the role of Dosifei. In 1970, the work was performed in Russian, during a Bolshoi tour, with, Irina Arkhipova and Elena Obraztsova (Marfa), and Guergui Andriouchtenko (Andrei).