This article considers Musorgsky's opera Boris Godunov in light of the outbreak of political violence in Russia during the 1860s and 1870s. Attempting to make sense of Dmitry Karakozov's ideologically motivated attack on Alexander II in 1866, Russians sought parallels in literature—where authors such as Dostoevsky and Turgenev had begun to explore the psychology of ideological commitment—and in history, the Time of Troubles (1598–1613) serving as a particularly salient point of reference. Boris Godunov, on which Musorgsky began work in 1868, brought these two strands together: set during the Time of Troubles, the opera features the upstart Pretender Dmitry, a historical figure in whom some writers found an ancestor of the modern political terrorist. But Musorgsky's treatment of the Pretender character diverges sharply in his two versions of Boris Godunov, suggesting shifting ideas about the role of this figure both in the opera and in history. Musorgsky's first attempt at the character produced a Pretender every inch the undeterrable “new man” of Russian literature; evincing little subjectivity beyond his obsession with his cause, the Pretender of 1869 escapes out a tavern window in act 2 and exists thereafter only as a musico-dramatic idea. In Musorgsky's 1872 revision of the opera, however, the Pretender pops up again in Poland, where both his self-determination and his dogged recitative style are easily bowled over by Marina Mnishek's triple-metered tunefulness. Like Ratmir in Ruslan and Liudmila's enchanted garden, this Pretender forgets his cause—but participates in the opera's most ravishing music. Drawing on a wide swath of literary and historical writings, this article explores Musorgsky's participation in an urgent contemporary discussion about the personal ramifications of absolute commitment to an idea and the limits of individual agency.
Boris Godunov and the Terrorist
EMILY FREY is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College. Her research explores the relationship between opera and psychological literature in nineteenth-century Russia. She held an Alvin H. Johnson AMS 50 Dissertation Fellowship in 2013–14, and is currently completing a book entitled Russian Opera in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
Emily Frey; Boris Godunov and the Terrorist. Journal of the American Musicological Society 1 April 2017; 70 (1): 129–169. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jams.2017.70.1.129
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