About this Piece
Length: 5 minutes
It was hard to get away from history in St. Petersburg in June 1872. The city was celebrating the bicentennial of its founder's birth that month with speeches, pageants, and processions. In the midst of the festivities, Mussorgsky wrote to his friend, the critic Vladimir Stasov, on June 28: "I am pregnant with something and I am giving birth - and to what I am giving birth you will behold…." The something was the composer's vast historical opera Khovanshchina, whose title translates roughly as "The Khovansky Plot" or "The Khovansky Incident" and whose inspiration places it squarely among a group of musical works to emerge during this period exemplifying the importance of the past in nationalist music.
Mussorgsky wrote the libretto and spent the rest of his life working on the score, which remained incomplete at his death. The drama hinges on the tension between Peter the Great and three entrenched groups who stood between him and absolute power: Prince Ivan Khovansky, leader of the old nobility; the Old Believers, who opposed Peter's attempts to extend his dominion over the church; and the Europeanizers, whose leader Golitsyn supported Peter's sister (and enemy), the regent Sophia. Peter ultimately crushes them all: Khovansky is killed, Golitsyn is exiled, and the Old Believers immolate themselves at the opera's end. Mussorgsky thought the subject ideal for depicting the tension between progress and inertia in Russian history and for looking at the cost of such progress. In his 1881 biographical essay on Mussorgsky, Stasov recalled, "It seemed to me that the struggle between the old and new Russia, the passing of the former from the stage and the birth of the latter, was rich soil for drama, and Mussorgsky shared my opinion."
Mussorgsky first mentioned the opera's prelude in a letter of August 1873: "The Introduction (dawn over Moscow, matins with cock-crow, the patrol, the taking down of the chains) and the first incursions into the action are already prepared, but not written down." The manuscript (in piano score) is dated more than a year later, September 4, 1874. This glacial pace of composition plagued the entire project, and Mussorgsky never completed the end of Act II and only left sketches for Act V. The prelude exists in orchestral versions by Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich, both of whom "completed" Mussorgsky's opera. Structurally, it relies on a process of thematic transformation, as material heard after a brief, introductory ascending figure blossoms out to depict the events described in Mussorgsky's letter. The peaceful atmosphere seems untroubled by the history about to unfold over the course of the opera, reinforcing the fact that nature and the events of daily life, regulated by the ringing of the church bells, go on regardless of the machinations of politics.
- John Mangum is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Artistic Planning Manager.