About this Piece
Length: 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bells, cymbals, side drum, tam-tam, triangle), harp, piano ( = celesta), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 11, 1932, Artur Rodzinski conducting (Prelude only, orch. Rimsky-Korsakov); April 29, 1999, Mark Wigglesworth conducting (Prelude, orch. Shostakovich)
Mussorgsky's "national music drama" Khovanshchina occupied him roughly from June of 1872, when he first got the idea for a historical grand opera on the troubles surrounding Peter the Great's accession to the throne, until his premature death in 1881. The bicentennial of Peter's birth was 1872, and with Vladimir Stasov's help Mussorgsky began to assemble various historical documents, from which he would craft his own libretto.
He started composition the following year, and worked at it intermittently through his final alcohol-fueled descent into loneliness and poverty. He was fired from his government post at the beginning of 1880. Friends guaranteed him an allowance, providing he finish Khovanshchina; another group of well-meaning friends gave him another allowance provided he finish his comic opera Sorochintsy Fair. The thus-conflicted and always afflicted composer finished neither, with his last work on Khovanshchina done in August. In February 1881 he suffered several seizures, was admitted to a military hospital and died a few weeks later from the effects of chronic alcoholism.
At this point Khovanshchina was unfinished in several sections and almost entirely unorchestrated. Rimsky-Korsakov, another well-meaning friend, stepped in and completed the work. The legend of Mussorgsky already alive held that the composer was a wild, original, but untutored genius, much in need of technical correction. Certainly Rimsky believed that, and gave himself unstintingly to his friend's work. His version of Khovanshchina was published in 1883 - with not a ruble coming to Rimsky - and was first performed by an amateur group in St. Petersburg in 1886.
This became the standard performing version of the sprawling opera, although Ravel and Stravinsky created a variant for Diaghilev in 1913. In 1931 Pavel Lamm and Boris Asafeyev published a vocal score relying on Mussorgsky's original manuscripts. From this Shostakovich reorchestrated the whole opera in 1958 for a 1959 film version (conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov). This had its stage premiere at the Kirov in 1960, and has remained a staple of the house ever since; Valery Gergiev and the Kirov company brought a widely acclaimed new production to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this past February.
Khovanshchina, or The Khovansky Affair, deals primarily with the opposition to Peter's accession by Prince Ivan Khovansky and his son. More philosophically, it deals with the transition of Russia into a modern state on the line of Western European models. Progress may be inevitable, but comes at a price, and Mussorgsky clearly felt that much was lost as well as gained. The heroes, if any, are not the political plotters nor the off-stage Peter - Tsarist censors forbade the dramatic representation of any of the Imperial family - but rather the priest Dosifei and his Old Believers, a cultish group of schismatics who equated Peter with the Antichrist and committed suicide rather than countenance the rise of Imperial power.
The Prelude to Khovanshchina is an elegantly descriptive account of "Dawn over the Moskva River," before the opera opens on a scene of dozing Moscow sentries. The Finale takes place in the rural retreat of the Old Believers, as they commit mass suicide by burning, "resolutely stepping out of history and into eternity, where Peter cannot touch them," as Richard Taruskin describes it.
Mussorgsky had indicated an actual Old Believer melody for this chorus. Rimsky elaborated it with orchestral figures representing flames, and Shostakovich picked up Rimsky's basic idea, adding a reprise of some of the Dawn music. Winds and brass double the chorus, and here replace the solo voices.
— John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications.