A Note on ‘Khovanshchina’

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On the occasion of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, we publish, in a slightly revised version, Isaiah Berlin’s program note for the Covent Garden production of 1963.

In the spring of 1872 Vladimir Vassilievich Stassov, the friend, inspirer, critic, historian, and principal standard-bearer of the new national school of Russian art, conceived a new theme for an opera which he urged with characteristic vehemence upon his admiring friend Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky. The composer had just completed his second version of Boris Godunov; that work, too, owed a great deal to Stassov, whose sympathies, like those of the painters, sculptors, and composers whom he influenced, were against the regime and with the Populist movement. For him and his friends art was not an end in itself; its primary purpose was not to give delight but to communicate truth. This truth was of necessity social and historical, for, as Mussorgsky wrote in October of the same year to Stassov,

the artistic representation of beauty alone in its material manifestation is crude, immature, and belongs to the infancy of art. The subtlest traits of the nature of both the individual and the masses—to explore these little-known regions and to conquer them—that is the true mission of the artist. To new shores! Boldly, through storms, shoals, and under-water rocks, to new shores! Man is a social being and cannot be otherwise; masses, like individuals, invariably possess elusive traits that no one has seen, that slip through one’s fingers—to note them, study them, read, observe, conjecture, to dedicate one’s entire being to their study, to offer the result to humanity as a wholesome dish which it has never before tasted, that is the task—the joy of joys! This is what we shall try to do in our Khovanshchina—what, my dear Oracle?

Unswerving service to the cause of truth—scrupulous fidelity to every nuance of human character and action, the invention of a special musical idiom for “the re-creation in musical terms not of generalized moods or feelings,” but of the “melodic quality of actual human speech” by means of which what is significant in the flow of life can be directly conveyed to his contemporaries—that, according to the “oracle”—Stassov—is the task of every progressive artist. To do this, to follow every pulsation of the constantly changing human spirit, was to abandon fixed rules: this was what the great innovators. “Palestrina, Bach, Gluck, Beethoven, Berlioz” (and in Russia Dargomyzhsky, whom Mussorgsky described as a composer of genius) had done.

The principal enemy was the spiritually empty music of the West. Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, were singled out by the new Russian school, as purveyors of lifeless, mass-produced artefacts which, with their conventional arias, mechanical harmonies, and absurd plots, were only too obviously designed to satisfy the routine demands of commercialized Western taste. Tchaikovsky was condemned as their cosmopolitan imitator; Wagner’s music was dismissed as pretentious cacophony. The heroes were Berlioz, Liszt …

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