Boris Godunov Opera Analysis Essay

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov's contact with Modest Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov came quite literally as it was written. Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky had shared the same worktable as both Boris and Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Maid of Pskov were composed. After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, and long after Boris Godunov had been a success at the Mariinsky Theater, Rimsky-Korsakov undertook a general review of the quality of Mussorgsky's work in regard to its orchestration. Rimsky-Korsakov's assessment of Mussorgsky's orchestral ability was not particularly favorable; in letters Rimsky-Korsakov writes of Mussorgsky's "unbelievably bad voice leading," his propensity toward thick textures, uneven rhythmic patterns, and, by Rimsky-Korsakov's own standards, questionable harmonic practices.

In terms of refashioning the music of Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov initially limited himself to an arrangement made in 1886 of the Act One Prelude and Act Three Polonaise, neatly dovetailed together as a sort of overture. In 1891, Rimsky-Korsakov re-scored the Coronation Scene, and six years later his first edition of Boris Godunov was staged. Rimsky-Korsakov had, by this time, made deep cuts in the score and had switched the running order of the last two scenes. Rimsky-Korsakov proclaimed "For the present, there is need of an edition for performances, for practical artistic purposes, for making Mussorgsky's colossal talent known, and not for the mere studying of his personality and artistic sins." Rimsky-Korsakov clearly viewed Boris Godunov as being non-performable in its original state, despite that the opera had already been given 22 times from Mussorgsky's own score.

Rimsky-Korsakov returned to Boris in 1906 at the request of Serge Diaghilev, who was looking for a version to use in Paris with the Bolshoi Opera and its formidable Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin. In this instance, Rimsky-Korsakov restored some of the cuts, but elected to rewrite some of the music himself. This became the version the whole world came to know, and was the performance standard even in Russia until the 1970s. It is certainly an impressive piece of work, fitted with a gorgeous, sweeping orchestration and generous melody for the singers. But it is far different from Mussorgsky's original conception, with its speech-like vocal lines and its disdain for accepted notions of scoring and dramaturgy.

"If for some reason in the future my Boris Godunov should be determined as inferior to the original, then by all means, I invite you to discard it" Rimsky-Korsakov once stated, perhaps a bit facetiously. Rimsky-Korsakov would doubtless express surprise to know that it has been indeed "discarded" in Russia, toppled like statues of Lenin after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Post-Soviet audiences seem to prefer the short, 1869 version best of the three Boris Godunovs. However, Rimsky-Korsakov's conception of the opera maintains a stronghold in the West, and perhaps this is appropriate, as Gerald Abraham stated in 1945, "both (Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky versions of Boris) are masterpieces."

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Boris Godunov (opera)

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