Prelude to Khovanshchina

Modest Mussorgsky (Dawn over the Moskva River)

In September 1874, Mussorgsky completed a piano score for Dawn over the Moskva River. It was intended to open his last opera, Khovanschina (The Khovansky Affair), which lay uncompleted upon his death from alcohol poisoning on March 28, 1881.

The topic of the opera was the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky focused against the regent Sofia Alekseyevna (1682–1689) and the Westernizing reforms instituted by Tsar Peter the Great and Ivan IV. Plump. Assertive Sofia had wiled her way into the regency after her brother, Tsar Feodor III, a feeble and weak leader, died leaving succession matters in bloody political and familial confusion. She was lucky that the Moscow Uprising of 1682 supported her successful candidacy. She was actually well trained in government, and many said Feodor did her bidding during his reign.  She was supported in this ascendancy by the Miloslavsky party and her own conniving strengths to gain the position. She immediately appointed Prince Vasily Galitzine (said to have been her lover, in spite of having a wife and large family) to handle political affairs.

Sofia lasted for seven years, the first woman to rule her country, said to have governed effectively. Russia, for example, became the first “western” country to sign a trade agreement with Imperial China. However, she was tried by a special tribunal, summoned by her half-brother Peter who suspected her of planning a coup against him to prevent his “rightful” ascension. To his mind, her many portraits in full regal attire and her minting of coins with her image on them meant she was in it for the long haul. The trial was a culmination of his paranoia which included not only fears for his political success but his murder as well.  Sofia was arrested, cast out, and confined in seclusion to a cell in the Novodevichy Convent for the remaining six years of her life.  At age seventeen, Peter succeeded her and was eventually proclaimed Emperor in 1721.

The music critic Vladimir Stasov brought this matter to the attention of the composer, who was fond of Russian history as a suitable operatic topic, and Mussorgsky agreed, dedicating the work to him. Stasov noted, “It seemed to me that 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.” Between 1872 and 1880, Mussorgsky worked hard on the project, wrote the libretto for his four act opera, duration of about five hours, which was never performed, never completed and never scored for orchestra.  After the composer’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov took over, finishing the opera (to his liking) and scoring.  The Prelude premiered in St. Petersburg on February 21, 1866. Shostakovich, as well, took a turn and completed the opera in his own version in 1959. A Ravel-Stravinsky orchestral version was also written but was not successful.

The Prelude to Act I was described by the composer as “depicting dawn over the Moscow River, matins at cock crow, the patrol, and the taking down of the chains (on the city gates).” It is short but very effective — it begins delicately and soon a beautiful tune emerges. This grows until the oboe has the tune against rising scales in the violins, the curtain rises, and we see not the Moscow River but Red Square. As the music becomes more animated, we see the church domes lit by the rising sun. The bells sound for early mass. The bells die away, and the music dissolves like the mist from the river. ”

The atmospheric beauty and gentle nature of the Prelude stands in sharp contrast to the vicious political strife in Russia. A single, folk-like melody is proclaimed at the beginning and then treated to small variations. It stands apart from the searing governmental wars; for Mussorgsky, the real Russia lay in what he called the “black, unfertilized earth of its people.” (Mark Rohr).

©  Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra 2017

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