Boris Godunov and the Intersection of Politics and Music

 

Explore more! Visit the exhibit
Times of Trouble: the Intersection of Music and Politics

at Davies Symphony Hall from June 1 - 30, located in the First Tier Lobby.

 BorisContralto Louise Homer (1871-1947) as Marina in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Boris Godunov, March 1913.
Photo by Bain News Service. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is regarded by many as the first true Russian opera. It depicts the beginning of the "Time of Troubles" at the turn of the 17th century as Boris Godunov is crowned Tsar, soon to be challenged by a man falsely claiming the throne. Drawing the text from Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play of the same name, Mussorgsky (1839-81) wrote his opera during another turbulent time in Russian history, as revolutionary groups threatened the life of Tsar Alexander II.

Explore the timeline below to dive into the intriguing events that inspired Boris Godunov, and track the creation and performances of the opera and other politically relevant pieces in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Don’t miss Boris at Davies: Michael Tilson Thomas leads an internationally renowned cast in a semi-staged version of Mussorgsky's opera June 14-17.

 


The Real Boris Godunov

1584

Ivan the Terrible, first Tsar of Russia, dies and is succeeded by his middle son, Feodor. Owing to Feodor’s inadequacies as ruler, his brother-in-law Boris Godunov becomes his chief advisor.

Ivan The TerriblePhoto by Bain News Service. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


1591

Dmitri, Ivan’s youngest son and Feodor’s half-brother, dies from a stab wound to his throat. Boris Godunov is thought to have ordered the execution.

Boris Godunov with Ivan the TerribleBoris Godunov with Ivan the Terrible, by Ilya Repin, 1890


1598

Feodor I dies with no male heir and Boris Godunov is chosen as Tsar by the Assembly of the Land. The “Time of Troubles” begins, during which Russia experiences war, famine, and unprecedented political instability with 9 proclaimed leaders in 15 years.

Times of Troubles by Sergey IvanovTime of Troubles, by Sergey Ivanov, 1885


1604

False Dmitri, a man claiming to be the late Prince, invades Muscovy (the principality of Moscow) and later assumes power. Boris Godunov dies soon after, most likely of a stroke.


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Mussorgsky's Opera and a Society in Turmoil (1689-1881)

1689-1725

Rule of Peter the Great. He revolutionizes the culture and politics of Russia to align with Western Europe.

Peter the great Peter the Great, by Paul Delaroche, 1838


1825-1855

Rule of Nicholas I, a conservative Tsar who “froze Russia” during his reign.


1831

Alexander Pushkin publishes Boris Godunov six years after finishing it.
Censors (including Nicholas I himself) twice denied Pushkin the right to publish his play, as the original version challenged the concept of autocracy and represented False Dmitri favorably.

Playwright Alexander PushkinPlaywright Alexander Pushkin, Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


1839

Modest Mussorgsky is born. Mussorgsky (1839-81) was part of The Five, a group of nationalist Russian composers intent on finding the voice of their country. Mussorgsky contributed to this goal by incorporating Russian folk songs and the sounds of liturgical music into his pieces.

Portrait of Modest MussorgskyPortrait of Modest Mussorgsky, by Ilya Repin, 1881


1855-1881

Rule of Alexander II. His Emancipation Edict ends serfdom in 1861, but ensuing taxes and land distribution often left peasants unable to survive. In 1866, he barely survived an assassination attempt by a Russian revolutionary.

Peasants in a fieldPeasants eating a meal in a field, ca. 1870 Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


1869

Mussorgsky completes the first version of his opera Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin’s play. It is rejected by censors because it lacked a primary female role.


1870

First performance of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov at Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg


1872

Mussorgsky completes his second version of Boris Godunov, with new female roles and scenes to appease the censors.
Mussorgsky’s revised version expanded the role of False Dmitri and gave the people a more vocal and active role. Going beyond Pushkin’s text, False Dmitri aligns himself with the Poles, a perennial enemy of the Russian people.

Contralto Louise Homer as Marina
Contralto Louise Homer (1871-1947) as Marina in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Boris Godunov, March 1913.
Photo by Bain News Service. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


1874

First performance of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in St. Petersburg.


1881

Alexander II works towards creating a constitution but is killed by the revolutionary group, “People’s Will”.

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Mussorgsky's Opera in the World (1882-present)


1908

First performance of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov outside Russia, in Paris. Many composers tried their hands at revisions of Mussorgsky’s opera. His contemporary Rimsky-Korsakov’s version was used for the Paris production, and remained the most accepted version for decades. Dmitri Shostakovich also re-orchestrated the piece in 1940, as did Igor Buketoff in 1997.

Cover page for Boris GodounovCover page for Boris Godounov, Paris, 1908
Courtesy of Library of Congress, Music Division


1913

US premiere of Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Cast of the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Boris Godunov, 1913Cast of the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Boris Godunov, March 1913, including Polish bass singer Adam Didur (1874-1946) as Boris Godunov, soprano Anna Case as Theodore, Boris Godunov's son; Maria Duchene as the nurse, and mezzo-soprano Leonora Sparkes as Xenia, Boris Godunov's daughter.
Photo by Bain News Service. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


1914

Russia joins the Allied powers in WWI.

Russian soldiers with guns in trenches during World War IRussian soldiers with guns in trenches during World War I, 1915
Photo by Bain News Service. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


1917

Russian Revolution overthrows tsarist rule. Power lies initially with a provisional government, then with radical communists, the Bolsheviks, under leader Vladimir Lenin

First appearance of Lenin at a meeting in SmolnyFirst appearance of Lenin at a meeting in Smolny, the Petrograd Soviet, on October 25, 1917, by Konstantin Yuon, 1927


1922

After series of regional wars, Bolsheviks rename Russia the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics.

San Francisco Symphony premiere of selections from Boris Godunov, under conductor Alfred Hertz.


1928

First performance of original 1869 version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg).

Sketch for the Opera Boris GodunovSketch for the Opera Boris Godunov, by Ivan Bilibin, 1930


1929-1953

Rule of Joseph Stalin, dictator of the USSR. Stalin consolidates his power through fear and repression, killing millions through execution, famine, and gulag work camps.

Joseph StalinJoseph Stalin, Secretary-general of the Communist party of Soviet Russia, ca. 1942
Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


1937

Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47 by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Shostakovich (1906-75) found himself caught in the authoritarian terror of Stalin’s regime as he composed his Fifth Symphony. His opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District had incurred the displeasure of the dictator, and the fallout instilled in him a fear of not only his job but his life.

Shostakovich SymphonyShostakovich Symphony, by Pavel Filonov, 1935


 

 

1939-1945

World War II. After Germany breaks a non-aggression pact with Russia, Stalin joins the US and Britain.

Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill on portico of Russian EmbassyStalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill on portico of Russian Embassy in Teheran, during a conference, 1943
Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


1941

Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen.
Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) wrote Quartet for the End of Time as a prisoner of war in Stalag VIIIA in Görlitz, Germany.

Invitation to the premiere of Quartet for the End of Time, 1941Invitation to the premiere of Quartet for the End of Time, 1941


1945

San Francisco Opera mounts first full production of Boris Godunov in San Francisco.

San Francisco Opera's 1945 production of Boris GodunovSan Francisco Opera's 1945 production of Boris Godunov
Photo by R. Strohmeyer, Courtesy of San Francisco Opera


1947-1991

Cold War period with the West.

Factory workers drilling with guns in their free time in the USSRMen and women workers at combine factory in Rostov-on-Don, USSR, ca. 1930
Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division


1962

War Requiem, by Benjamin Britten
Britten (1913-76) wrote the War Requiem to commemorate the rebuilding of the Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the German attack on London known as the Blitz. Britten combined the text of the Latin Requiem and war poems by Wilfred Owen, offering a statement of pacifism in keeping with the composer’s political ideals.

Factory workers drilling with guns in their free time in the USSRSt. Paul's Cathedral, London, amid smoke and flames of night air raid, Dec. 1940
Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Divison


1986

Nixon in China, by John Adams (b. 1947), depicts President and Mrs. Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, which ended a 25-year period of isolation between the two countries. It was a politically and culturally profound event, covered obsessively by the media and a seminal moment in the Cold War Era.

Nixon in China, by John AdamsNixon in China


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1991

Collapse of the Soviet Union.


2007

First performance of original, uncensored version of Pushkin’s play at Princeton University.


June 14, 15 and 17, 2018

San Francisco Symphony presents a semi-staged version of Boris Godunov


Learn more about the concert here!

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