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Immodest Ambition

Modest Musorgsky's achievement

Jul 24, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 42 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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The composer wrote his own libretto, drawing on Pushkin's play. Musorgsky's Boris, like Pushkin's, is as much a creature of folklore as of fact. The historical Boris Godunov was brother-in-law and principal adviser of the ineffectual Tsar Fyodor, son of Ivan the Terrible. When Fyodor died without an heir in 1598, Boris was elected to the throne and reigned secure for a time. But then one tribulation after another struck Russia -- flood, famine, plague -- and it was widely feared that God's wrath was due to the fact that Boris did not rule by right of blood. An ambitious monastic novice named Grigory Otrepiev soon announced that he was in fact Ivan the Terrible's youngest son, the Tsarevich Dmitry, thought to have died in 1591 at the age of nine. The pretender Otrepiev claimed that he had, instead, gone into hiding after Boris tried to murder him.

Otrepiev gathered support in Poland and among the Russian peasantry, and marched on Moscow. While he was on his way, in 1605, Boris died, and Russia acclaimed "Dmitry" as its rightful tsar and savior. But Otrepiev's brief reign was to prove even more disastrous than Boris's. Famine, invasion, and civil war ravaged Russia, and the era became known as the Time of Troubles.

In Musorgsky's opera, Boris is responsible for ordering the murder of the child Dmitry, and his tormented conscience is the death of him. From Boris's initial appearance, amid the magnificence of his coronation ceremony, guilt attends him. The first words he utters are so out of place that they can be understood only as a brief soliloquy: His soul is full of sadness and foreboding, he sings, before he adopts the appropriate public tone, asks God to bless his reign, and invites all to a feast. This relation between private feeling and public face, more complicated than mere disparity, lies at the heart of Boris Godunov. For the man guilty of a child's murder is himself the father of two children for whom he has dynastic ambitions.

In a scene set in the tsar's private rooms, his son, Fyodor, and the children's nurse try to cheer up his daughter Xenia, whose fiance has recently died. By turns the Tsar is jocular with the nurse, comforting to Xenia, and proud of Fyodor's studious interest in a map of the imperial domain. But then Xenia and the nurse depart, and Boris immediately launches into an agonized lament: His days bring no happiness, and during sleepless nights the dead Dmitry's ghost appears, begging for mercy. Boris does his best to keep up appearances, but he is never far from remorseful breakdown. As he talks with a nobleman who covets the throne, his composure slips; he starts chattering about the visions that haunt him and bursts into hysterical laughter. When Boris is left alone, the dead child comes into the room, and terror floors the tsar. (Boris's most famous performer, the bass Fyodor Chaliapin, was known for singing this passage while cowering under a desk.)

In the third and final scene in which Boris appears, all public pretense is stripped away. Boris staggers into the noblemen's council chamber, shouting at an apparition that only he can see. His guilt proves fatal, and he dies in full view of the horrified boyars.

Boris is one of the great operatic characters, but the opera is not his alone. As James Billington writes, "Musorgsky makes the Russian people rather than the figure of Boris the hero of his opera." Some of the most dramatically effective music in the opera is written for the chorus. The opening and closing scenes feature the crowd. Outside a Moscow monastery where the boyars are choosing the tsar, "the people" have gathered. At a policeman's order, they kneel and begin a mournful song that swells into desperate wailing, and the sheer concussive power of the sound carries an imposing moral authority. But that authority disintegrates as individual voices emerge. Asked why they are bawling, someone answers that he has no idea. One chorister is told to shut up; the altos respond, "Look who's giving orders" -- and then the tenors tell the altos to shut up. So long as the chorus sings with one voice, each member carries a burden heavier than his own fate. But the moment each person speaks for himself, they all appear petty, foolish, insignificant.

By the Kromy Forest scene, which concludes the opera (and is not to be found in Pushkin), the crowd is no longer "the people." It is merely a chorus of "vagrants" who congeal into a mob. Joining Otrepiev's insurrection, this mob tortures, burns, and kills to music that captures the savage merriment of revolutionary vengeance. At the opera's end, the stage is left to a solitary Holy Fool, who has been robbed of his only kopeck by a gang of children. In a quavering tenor, he sings of an approaching darkness: "Woe, woe to Russia, weep, / weep, you Russian people, / you starving people."

So the Russian people have much to endure, but they are not the hero of the opera. The hero of Boris Godunov is the truth. For Musorgsky truth does not blaze out as a revelation, but emerges as the growing awareness of the untrue. Untruth abounds in the opera. When "Dmitry" refuses to drink with him, the monk Varlaam sings, "The drunken man sees paradise." Varlaam might seem a harmless drunkard, but the rollicking bloodthirstiness of his song about the slaughter of Turks -- perhaps the catchiest tune in the opera -- hints at what he will be revealed to be: a brutal ringleader of a brutal mob. One regime founded on a lie follows another.

Musorgsky's is an astringent aesthetic: Beauty is not truth, and truth can be a far cry from beauty. Some of the roles in Boris require a vocal coarseness, even a talent for croaking or growling, quite unlike the sounds made in most nineteenth-century opera. Musorgsky is more than capable of writing music of lyric voluptuousness, but when he does so it is with the suggestion that such beauty is specious, beguiling.

In Boris the passage of greatest conventional beauty is the manipulative Polish princess Marina Mniszek's twisted profession of love for Otrepiev. Luxuriantly melodious, the music sounds like Tchaikovsky. Musorgsky was cool to Tchaikovsky. At a party in 1872, with the senior composer in attendance, Musorgsky performed his song cycle The Nursery and the Inn scene from Boris. Tchaikovsky snoozed through both. Soon afterward Musorgsky wrote, "I've had to spend all these days in the company of worshippers of absolute musical beauty. And I have experienced a strange feeling of emptiness in conversation with them." Gorgeous music in the hands of a Tchaikovsky can conceal a void within the composer himself -- where truth ought to be. In Musorgsky's scores, such beauty is a form of mockery; his most ravishing music is reserved as accompaniment to the compromised, not to say corrupt, emotions.

If untruth appears in music of extravagant lushness, the truth is deliberately unadorned. The purest character in Boris is the monk Pimen, whom we first see as he works all night on a chronicle of Russia. As he writes, a simple sixteenth-note figure sounds, reiterated over and over by violins; it embodies the monk's tireless concentration and ardent honesty. Even the truth can have unintended consequences, however. It is Pimen who tells Otrepiev, his cellmate, about the Tsarevich Dmitry; Otrepiev takes things from there. And it is Pimen who recounts for Boris how a blind man has been miraculously cured by Dmitry's ghost; Boris clutches his chest and crumples, dying, at the tale.

Boris Godunov is the cornerstone of Musorgsky's reputation, but he did compose a fragment of another opera about seventeenth-century Russia, Khovanshchina. Musorgsky left only a piano-vocal score, and with scenes missing. Rimsky-Korsakov, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitry Shostakovich all completed full reconstructions, and Khovanshchina has its place as an occasional delicacy in major opera houses. Better known is Pictures at an Exhibition, program music for piano; Maurice Ravel scored it for orchestra, and this version is now more popular than Musorgsky's original.

But apart from Boris, Musorgsky's greatest work is the relatively little known Songs and Dances of Death, his setting for voice and piano of four poems by his friend Golenishchev-Kutuzov. As Emerson's new biography points out, the principal human emotion portrayed and provoked by this song cycle is terror.

Death, so Musorgsky imagines, feels quite differently about the matter; the songs detail the pleasure Death takes in conducting business. In "Trepak," Death cajoles a drunken peasant to lie down and rest in the middle of a blizzard. At first, Death addresses the man with a tripping gaiety; the tempo quickens, and the voice takes on a taunting edge. This sinister sportiveness is more fearsome than straightforward destruction: When Death sounds like she's enjoying herself (in three of the songs, Death is a woman), you know you're in trouble. As the piano plays a swirling figure that evokes the wind-whipped snow, the voice maintains a menacing calm, singing the suavest of dirges. At length, Death convinces the drunk that it is a beautiful summer's day. The man stretches out on the ground, and life gradually leaks out of him.

"Lullaby" renders the sweet solicitude of Death, who promises to end the suffering of a sick child as its mother cannot. Death's soft coaxing is punctuated by occasional sharp stabs from the piano; the mother gets ever more desperate, but Death never raises her voice. Gently insistent, Death sings as a refrain the phrase Bayushki, bayu, bayu ("Hush child, hush, hush"), the first word on a descending perfect fourth, the second a repetition, and the last a descending minor sixth. The effect is as chilling as the famous piano refrain in Schubert's setting of Goethe's "Erlkonig" -- which is as hair-raising as music gets.

In "Serenade," Death wins his way into the bed of a young woman with consumption, assuring her that he is more desirable than anything life has to offer. The song begins with a depiction of a spring night, and life seems to have a fighting chance. But when Death makes his move, he is irresistible, the voice advancing relentlessly, the rhythmically jaunty piano suggesting a funeral march. Tenderness does creep into the voice, but the song ends on a violently triumphant octave leap upward. It is a seduction that can hardly be distinguished from rape. Even more brazen and ferocious is Death's victory song in "The Field Marshal." Here Death, again a woman, reviews her troops, the fallen who will be hers forever.

Death ruined Musorgsky while he was still alive. The deaths of loved ones, the losses that everyone must endure, he found unendurable. As Emerson writes, "All accounts agree that alongside their graves, Musorgsky sobbed like a child, took to drink, blamed himself for inattentiveness or lack of love, eventually created some piece of music where each could be remembered and revived." But his art failed to contain his suffering.

Musorgsky's last years were an agony of fleabag lodgings, deepening loneliness, and the sort of daily drinking that is really a ceaseless pounding at death's door. A pair of strokes in quick succession landed him in the hospital. As he was recovering, the story goes, he paid an orderly to bring him a bottle of cognac in honor of his forty-second birthday. The bottle was drained in a hurry -- and paralyzed the weakened composer. He died in extreme pain. Reportedly, his last words were, "It's all over. Oh, how miserable I am!"

Soviet biographers were especially eager to absolve Musorgsky of responsibility for his desolate end, but Emerson does not let him off so easily: "The old scapegoats -- the Imperial Theatre Directorate, the tsarist bureaucracy, the need to make a living, a rapacious brother, the Guards regiment that 'forced him to drink' -- have become thin and unwarranted pretexts."

Musorgsky was both creature and self-creator; he made himself what he was, but given what he had to work with, it is possible he could not have done any better. And for all the wreckage and waste of his life, he did bring into being some splendid works of art -- strange growths, fleurs du mal perhaps, but of an enduring beauty.

A regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Algis Valiunas is a writer living in Greenacres, Florida.