The Kennedy Center

Prelude to Khovanstchina ("Dawn on the Moskva River")

About the Work

Image for Mussorgsky Composer: Modeste Mussorgsky
© Richard Freed


While Shostakovich left it to Lev Atoumyan to arrange concert suites from his own ballets and film scores, he himself arranged pieces by composers as diverse as Domenico Scarlatti, Johann Strauss and Vincent Youmans, and he addressed himself in earnest to orchestrating, or reorchestrating, the great works of the earlier compatriot he most admired, Modest Mussorgsky. His orchestration of the accompaniment to the song-cycle Songs and Dances of Death, which he undertook for the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya in 1962, was simply a transcription of Mussorgsky's original piano accompaniment, but in reorchestrating the operas Boris Godunov, in 1940, and Khovanshchina, in 1959, he was re-doing material which the composer himself had written for orchestra, and which Rimsky-Korsakov and others had already revised. In so doing, he did not set out to reject entirely what had been done earlier: his operating procedure, he said, was to study both Mussorgsky's original material and the Rimsky-Korsakov editions, and then retain what he found useful from the one source or the other and revise the rest as he felt necessary. Both of these operatic projects were of such importance to him that he assigned them opus numbers among his own works: Op. 58 for Boris, Op. 106 for Khovanshchina.

Rimsky-Korsakov has come in for a good deal of posthumous criticism for something that was a genuine act of devotion on his part. When Mussorgsky died, in 1881, Rimsky unhesitatingly interrupted his work on his own compositions in order to see that his friend's music was put into shape in which it could be performed. Boris and Khovanshchina were major tasks in this respect. One version of Boris had actually been performed in Mussorgsky's lifetime, but Rimsky reshaped the work and reorchestrated it to form the version in which it circulated throughout the world. In the case of Khovanshchina there was a great deal more to be done, for Mussorgsky had left that work incomplete after some nine years of intermittent work on it, and Rimsky had to sift through enough material for two full operas to assemble one very long one, and then orchestrate it. Without his effort, there is no telling when this remarkable work might have been put together in any form.

Helpful as Rimsky's versions of these two operas were, however, they were not universally accepted. The objections in the case of Khovanshchina had to do not only with his orchestration?regarded, as in his treatment of Boris, as having smoothed over and prettified Mussorgsky's sometimes harsh and blunt individual style?but also with the decisions he made in respect to which portions were included or omitted, and the sequence in which the various episodes were presented.

Over the years there have been several attempts at restoring both of these masterworks to something closer to what Mussorgsky intended, in respect to the overall dramatic sequence as well as the orchestration. As early as 1913, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky jointly undertook a partial reorchestration of Khovanshchina for a Paris production by Serge Diaghilev. Shostakovich's subsequent version, introduced in Leningrad in 1960, has found somewhat wider acceptance than his earlier treatment of Boris Godunov, and is now part of the repertory of the Kirov Opera in that city, which has reacquired its original name, St. Petersburg. In creating this version, as in his earlier effort.

For the orchestral Prelude (or Introduction) to Khovanshchina, Mussorgsky created an exquisite little tone poem to which he affixed the title "Dawn Over the Moskva River": It is not a sunburst, but the gradual coming of daylight that is evoked, in a brief sequence of five variants on a folk tune. These variants correspond to the way a song is modified from one verse to the next in the traditional singing style of Russian folk music. Listeners familiar with Rimsky's version of the Prelude will be struck by Shostakovich's quite different harmonization, and by his restoration of Mussorgsky's own imaginative woodwind solos at points at which Rimsky introduced a horn.