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Musical Truth in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov


Our interest in the role played by social intelligence in politics suffices to generate much of the aesthetic attraction of Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Not only is the opera a remarkably faithful reenactment of Russia’s dynastic struggle in 1598-1605, it is replete with cases of deceit and also passages of unprecedented psychological insight. The composer’s pursuit of “musical truth” anticipates much of the modern Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis.


Musical Truth in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov

Modest Musorgsky

“My music must be . . . truthful, accurate.”

The central work in the Russian operatic canon, Boris Godunov (1872), lends support to a hypothesis that art “serves to develop awareness of our own capabilities,” in this case, by providing insights “into interpersonal politics and personal subjectivity” (Cooke, 2008: 153). Not only does this opera present a remarkably accurate portrait of Russia’s dynastic struggle at the beginning of the 17th century, its portrait of the guilt-ravaged tsar constituted a substantial advance on previous methods of depicting subjective states of mind and anticipates modern views regarding social intelligence. These agendas, whether or not part of the composer’s conscious design, can be seen as essential to the considerable appeal of Boris, its pursuit of musical truth. The opera, especially the rendering of the title role, constituted a watershed in musical history, one that set many subsequent composers on a quest for greater psychological verisimilitude, often at the cost of melody, symmetry, and, indeed, comprehensibility itself. We can also see it as turning a new page regarding the essentials of political relationships, for Boris is the most political opera in the core repertory.[1]

Boris’ popularity is all the more remarkable for the many ways in which it bucks common notions regarding the writing of accessible works for the stage. Its central issue, the presumed assassination of Dmitry, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, takes place seven years before the drama begins, and whether it even occurred remains a major point of doubt for many of the characters, inasmuch as Grishka Otrepev, who ran away from a Moscow monastery in 1602, is able to convince a growing number of supporters that he is the tsarevich, that he miraculously survived the attempt on his life. The events are not only unfamiliar to Western audiences but also unclear to Russians, amongst whom the opera has supreme prestige; the political entanglements are more than byzantine—no fewer than three of the characters depicted occupied the throne subsequent to Boris: Boris’ young son Feodor who ruled but for days, Grishka (identified as the Pretender), and Boris’ courtier, Vasily Shuisky. All and probably others have reason to covet the throne, with the result highly salient to our study that one almost never knows whom to believe. There is little onstage violence and what appears to some as a love interest is in fact a dark parody of love; as a means of gaining a Polish army to advance his aims, Grishka contracts a marriage to Marina Mniszek, who is interested in the Russian only because she hopes to become tsaritsa. Those few who know the subsequent history of the “Time of Troubles,” 1606-1613, will remember that the actual Marina later recognized yet another “Dmitry” as her husband in order to regain her place by the throne. Most seriously, the principals never encounter each other a la Macbeth and MacDuff in the end of Shakespeare’s tragedy and Verdi’s opera. Rather, as recounted in history, Boris suddenly died of natural causes in 1605. Musorgsky leads us to believe this is caused either by feelings of guilt for complicity in the boy’s murder or by stress resulting from the Pretender’s approach to Moscow.

The music is rarely excerpted for concert or recital performance; it is effective only as a setting to the drama.[2] Although Musorgsky inserted a polonaise and a few folk songs in his 1872 revision, there is little opportunity for vocal display; rather, grim, inflected speech declamation characterizes the bulk of the work. As several commentators have noted, the opera comprises not a “continuously developed action,” but rather “a series of episodes held together by an epic thread and the central figure of the Tsar” (Grout and Palisca, 1996: 71). Precisely what brings on Boris’ demise—historical accounts suggest some sort of stroke—becomes the major unifying theme; as a result, Boris is the first psychological opera, par excellence, indeed.[3] Internal evidence leads us to conclude that this is the key to its being “the essential Russian opera” (Layton, 1998: 18). Vladimir Stasov said it is “one of the greatest works not only of Russian but of all European art” (cited in Taruskin, 1993: 290). The question I pose in this essay is how evolutionary criticism can account for the extraordinary prestige of this opera.

Boris holds the stage and would be yet more frequent on our shores if it were not for its exotic language—few Western singers or choruses are trained to sing in Russian—immense production costs—generally lavish sets are required for this costume drama—and parts which require not only demanding singing but also acting of a quality unprecedented on the operatic stage. Konstantin Stanislavsky said that Feodor Chaliapin’s performance of the title role inspired his system of method acting (Elliott 2006: 259). And it is a work of literary merit. Not only did Musorgsky adapt Alexander Pushkin’s tragedy of the same name—a play increasingly recognized as the poet’s most important work—but Prince Dmitry Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature praises the composer as a dramatic genius on the basis of how he set Pushkin’s unperformed tragedy (1958: 255). So, a secondary question for this essay: how is this kind of dramatic success accomplished in Mussorgsky’s pursuit of a specifically “musical truth.”

To be sure, heads of state and other political leaders figure large in the 100 most popular operas. The title characters of Aida, Salome, Turandot, Otello, Don Carlos, Lohengrin, Nabucco, Elektra, La clemenza di Tito, Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth, Idomeneo, Tristan und Isolde, L’incoronazione de Poppea, Guilio Cesare, Oberon, and Dido and Aeneas are all members of ruling families. As witnessed in much stage drama, the high social status of these characters appears to raise the ante of interest in the action; it follows that their fates should seem to have more sway on our own.[4] Political intrigues also are prominent in Tosca, Rigoletto, Fidelio, Andre Chenier, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Un ballo in maschera, and Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina. But with the exception of works like Macbeth and Dialogues, politics alone does not suffice to generate an evening-long entertainment; it usually serves as but a background to issues of romantic and/or filial love—themes that relate closely to inclusive fitness and that are thus easily scanned by evolutionary criticism. The Russian composer, Alexander Serov claimed that “music, by virtue of its open, candid nature, is but a poor elucidator of political and diplomatic intrigue” (cited in Taruskin 1993, 128). Almost uniquely, Boris is a successful opera that deploys almost exclusively political themes. Insofar as we surmise that much of the attraction of art lies in its resonance with “epigenetic rules” like mate selection, paternal uncertainty, incest, and reciprocal altruism, Boris poses a challenge to evolutionary criticism. Given that opera is an expensive art form, a greater load is placed on explaining how it comes to be performed. This is yet more the case in Boris which lacks several of the most popular elements of popular operas.

I am presupposing that successful works of art interest audiences by reference to the same issues that play a prominent role in determination of their inclusive fitness. Presumably, if something is crucial to our success or failure as reproducing organisms, we should tend to pay attention to it. Of course, there are many cases of misapplied attention, but, as Mark Schaller, Justin H. Park, and Douglas T. Kenrick argue, given that “attention is a limited resource,” “the human mind seems to be hypervigilant to cues connoting fitness-relevant perils and prospects.” As a result, “[p]eople are motivated to communicate about some kinds of information more than others, and these more highly communicable knowledge structures are more likely to become culturally popular” (Schaller, Park & Kenrick, 2007:494, 495, 501). We anticipate that the internal features of works of art will reflect our evolved tendencies in the allocation of attention.

Some well-identified epigenetic themes can be discerned in the opera. One of the basic themes of the tragedy is pedicide (killing children) and a corresponding affront to notions of justice and prosocial behavior. The end of the Rurikovich Dynasty began in 1581 when Ivan the Terrible killed his eldest son Ivan, his healthy successor, in a sudden moment of anger. This left the microcephalic Feodor to succeed him in 1584. With the tsar visibly incapable of ruling “all the Russias,” the country was run by his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov. The dynasty became even more fragile in 1591 when Ivan’s other surviving son, Dmitry, mysteriously died in Uglich. An official inquest led by Vasily Shuisky judged the nine-year-old boy’s death an accidental suicide—they concluded the boy suffered an epileptic fit while playing with a knife. Even so rumors persist as the opera begins that Boris ordered his assassination in order to clear his way to the throne seven years later. The curtain rises in 1598 when Feodor died without a surviving heir and his widow Irina refused the throne. A crowd comes to the monastery where Boris took refuge, pretending to refuse their plea that he accept the crown. This is followed, of course, by “The Coronation Scene,” where Boris claims to be overwhelmed by the prospect of assuming responsibilities he has already held for 14 years. If according to the historian Nikolai Karamzin, Pushkin’s principal source, Boris was guilty of the crime, this would have required a special degree of foresight on his part. Tsar Feodor was healthy in 1591 and capable of producing a healthy successor—his daughter subsequently died at only one year of age.[5] Indeed, few modern historians continue to maintain his guilt. Caryl Emerson also argues that it would hardly have been characteristic for a medieval tsar to feel pangs of conscience in such a case—the historical Boris certainly purged many of his other rivals—but he well might have feared supernatural retribution (Emerson & Oldani, 1994: 209). Obviously, it mattered to Pushkin, who wrote the first version of his play in 1825, and Musorgsky, who submitted the first version of Boris in 1869, that the tsar experienced guilt.[6] They evidently believed that considerations of justice required some recompense on Boris’ part for his crime. Musorgsky altered Pushkin’s text so that it is Pimen, the monastic chronicler who first charges Boris with murder, who relates a miracle to the tsar proving that his victim is now a saint in Heaven—and thus brings on Boris’ fatal stroke.

It should already be clear that Boris does not fit the typical pattern of an opera; rather, it largely follows an arguably accurate account of the actual events. The opera then skips to 1602, when Grishka Otrepiev, a novice in the Miracle Monastery, hears about these events from Pimen. Grishka echoes his mentor’s call for divine justice to be visited on Boris, but this impulse is immediately supplanted by one of regal ambition. Hearing that Dmitry, if the prince had lived, would be about his age, Grishka flees to Poland. Word reaches Boris that his Polish enemies have received and recognized this “Dmitry Ivanovich” as the rightful heir to the throne. Whether this was the actual son of Ivan the Terrible, who somehow escaped assassination, and/or Grishka Otrepiev, is a continuing matter of speculation; for our purposes it suffices to note that Karamzin, Pushkin, and Musorgsky treat him as an imposter. The tsar vainly orders the novice’s arrest and asks that Dmitry’s relics be transferred to Moscow as means of proving that the boy is dead. No doubt these developments caused Boris undue stress, but his death must be ascribed to medical or psychological causes, not military or political.

Both Pushkin and Musorgsky set Karamzin’s historical account as part of intentional challenge to write dramas without substantial love interest—a feature in more than eighty percent of the core opera repertory (Cooke, 2010: 79). Arriving in Poland Grishka asserted his claim to the crown and, as part of recruiting support of local Polish nobles, won the hand of Marina Mniszek. What follows in “The Fountain Scene” is a wicked parody of a romantic assignation, normally a staple of conventional opera—albeit directors often miss the irony in the text. While the genuinely smitten “Dmitry” would prefer to be loved for his own sake, Marina will only have him if he really expects to occupy the throne and bring her with him.[7] It is one of the remarkable features of Boris that so much aesthetic interest can be elicited by this unremitting series of selfish and duplicitous characters. With the presentation of romantic love so repellent in the opera, the question then becomes how the composers and their audience are attracted to this very motley tale. Evidence of prosocial behavior is scanty and it is difficult to identify a moral “hero.”

An argument can be made for filial love as a motivating theme in the opera. The “Terem Scene,” set in Boris’ Kremlin apartments, depicts the tsar’s doting attention to his daughter Ksenia and son Feodor. Like Macbeth, he is a criminal interloper concerned with starting a dynasty; he monitors Feodor’s study of the map of Russia. Boris elicits some sympathy as a loving parent. Later in the penultimate “Duma Scene,” the dying tsar instructs Feodor once again in the art of statesmanship and installs him on the throne. Whether or not cognizant of the actual history, the audience rightly surmises it will not be long before Grishka has the boy killed.[8] The work closes with a “holy fool” mourning the fate of the entire country,

Woe, woe to Russia, weep,

Weep, ye Russian people,

Ye starving people! (420)

Seven years of political chaos are clearly in view.

Given their limited development in the opera, it does not appear that the themes described above provide much more than a peripheral evolutionary account for the opera. Of course, it is not to be expected that one or any small group of evolutionary themes suffice to motivate either the composition and/or appreciation of a work of art, let alone one the size and complexity of Boris Godunov. Something more seems to be required.

I suggest that a major ingredient in the mix is the still insufficiently chartered nexus of Theory of Mind and social intelligence—a nexus highly relevant to almost all political relationships. Simon Baron-Cohen posits a Theory of Mind module to account for our ability to model the consciousness of other people by means of self-consciousness. “Human have evolved to be able to attribute mental states to interpret and predict action—that is, to ‘mindread’” (1997: 207) That ability allows us to anticipate other people’s actions and have some sense of whom to trust and whom to fear. Obviously, this ability is highly fallible. Social intelligence can be impeded by a co-evolved ability to obstruct penetration by others, to deceive others, and even to deceive one’s self..

The drive to gain insight into human nature constitutes one of the major themes of narrative arts, including opera.[9] That drive is rooted in a universal human disposition but can be cultivated and developed by cultural means. The development of “realism” as a narrative mode can be characterized as a cultural technology aimed at developing our innate powers of psychological penetration. Boris marks a major milestone in the development of greater psychological realism in opera, both in terms of increasingly detailed and incisive depictions of subjectivity in libretti and in the musical language used to set them.[10] It is as if composers, librettists, their producers, and their audiences, were conducting a progressive course of research into the experience of being human.[11]

My argument is prompted by observation of the unusual emphasis placed on truth in Musorgsky’s opera. Prosocial behavior depends on some degree of honesty in communication; otherwise, it is difficult to imagine how cooperation can be established and maintained. On the other hand, allies are coincidentally competitors, so alliance dictates a certain degree of dissimulation. To prevent exploitation by others, we are constantly on the lookout for deception; signals suggesting intended deception heighten interest and leave stronger traces in memory. Not surprising, then, that the Dmitry legend was dramatized by Lope de Vega, Alexander Sumarokov, and Friedrich Schiller, and set on the opera stage by Johann Mattheson.

As arguably the political opera, it seems symptomatic that Boris is replete with various cases of lying. In a fashion sadly characteristic of politicians, Boris begins the action by lying to the Russian people as a whole. He pretends to refuse popular demand that he assume the throne, now that the country’s first dynasty has come to an end. For their part, the crowd pretends to plea for him, prodded to do so by major boyars and the police. Whom this is meant to deceive is an unanswered question. This is followed by the “Coronation Scene” where Boris indeed accepts the crown, as the crowd—it would be the same chorus in a performance—and his known rivals call out, “Long life!” to him. Later, to dispel rumors that Dmitry is approaching Moscow to reclaim the throne, Boris has the boy’s relics transferred to Moscow and orders a requiem mass to be sung in his honor in St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square. Although he requests that Dmitry be recognized as a saint, he is so disturbed by Pimen’s account of miracles performed in the tsarevich’s name that he suffers his fatal stroke. Clearly there is a contradiction in this.

Meanwhile, Musorgsky makes it quite clear that Grishka Otrepev is not only a Pretenderl he is also not otherwise to be trusted. Grishka knows from Pimen that the monk saw the body, ergo that he is not the tsarevich.[12] In the “Inn Scene,” Grishka tells guards that he was leading the itinerant monks Varlaam and Missail, when it was they who guided him—and he does this quite brazenly in their presence. Grishka is travelling in disguise, nevertheless, he is unsettled to learn that the guards are carrying a warrant for his arrest and execution. He then misreads the warrant to implicate Varlaam. In the “Polish Act,” Grishka, of course, passes himself off as the proper heir to the Russian throne; given his distinct appearance—red hair, warts, and a deformed arm—this appears to be a brazen lie, one easily compared with memories of the tsarevich. In Pushkin’s play Grishka’s Polish hosts suspect him, but they are not that interested in the truth, nor is Marina. It is far more advantageous for them to believe his story and use him as a weapon against Moscow and a venue to the throne.

These leaders, of course, are not alone in their disregard for the truth. The border guards press the warrant on Varlaam and Missail as a means of shaking them down for money. One cannot be confident regarding Vaarlam’s plea of poverty. Interestingly, the monk expresses his suspicions at Grishka’s refusal to drink with them. (252) Though betrayed by Grishka in Act I, Varlaam and Missail fail to recognize him in “Dmitry” as the latter leads a Polish army, Jesuits, and a motley Russian crowd against Moscow in the concluding “Kromny Forest” revolution scene (Taruskin 1993: 273). For his part, Dmitry trusts neither Rangoni nor Marina’s protestations of her love, and with good reason, for she is only faking her passion for him. One rarely knows whom to believe, even in soliloquies.[13]

One would hardly expect that rivals would be candid with each other. Information is power, and so is misinformation. At different junctures Boris gives specific instructions that the truth be told to him—apparently they require reiteration, especially as the stakes rise. Note how Boris insults Vasily Shuisky to his face:

Ah, the most illustrious orator,

worthy ringleader

of the brainless herd;

the criminal leader

of the seditious boyars

the arch rival of the royal throne.

The impudent liar, who has

broken his oath three times,

the cunning hypocrite,

the sly flatterer,

the woman making communion bread,

while wearing the hat of a boyar,

the deceiver and the rogue!       (304-6)

Boris has just heard a spy’s report that Shuisky has held secret conversations regarding messages from Poland. How are Boris’ insults to motivate Shuisky to give him what he wants? It is at this point that Shuisky announces the appearance of the Pretender. When Shuisky describes how he led the investigation into Dmitry’s death more than a dozen years previously, the audience may wonder why he goes into such detail regarding the uncorrupted state of the body, including his observation that the boy was still smiling. Can we place confidence in his assertions? Could it be that this future tsar has his eye on the crown? Notably his report so unsettles Boris that the tsar asks strange questions such as

Have you ever heard…

of dead children

rising from their graves . . .

to interrogate tsars . . .

lawful tsars . . .

elected by the whole nation . . .

and crowned

by the great Patriarch . . . (312)

Only minutes later Boris suffers hallucinations of the bloody child approaching him in the “Clock Scene.” Is his mental breakdown Shuisky’s design? Of course, it is Shuisky who later ushers in Pimen to tell how shepherd regained his sight by praying to the now angelic Dmitry. Why is Pimen’s witness necessary? In any case, the shepherd’s tale is the blow that brings on the tsar’s fatal stroke. It should be kept in mind that neither Pimen nor Shuisky, who knows what the monk is going to say, has the best intentions for Boris. One regards the tsar as a regicide, the other has all but heard Boris’ confession and is well aware of the rumors surrounding the boy’s mysterious death. Other boyars accuse Shuisky of telling crowds the boy is alive. (372)

Lisa Zunshine warns that there is a limit to the number of liars a prose fiction can bear: “By creating a narrative framework in which everybody could be lying, such novels push to its furthest limits our ability to store information about our own and other people’s mental states under advisement” (2006: 133). Perhaps this is not as much a problem in dramatic narrative, where this is no possibly deceptive narrator intruding between the audience and the objective facts to be seen on the stage. Nevertheless, it is problematical that the central action of Boris, the murder of the tsarevich, not only is not staged but is not even related by eyewitnesses. Instead, the best accounts we are given are Pimen and Shuisky’s visits after the event. And this happened seven years before the curtain rises.

At the first mention of the Pretender in Act II, Boris orders Feodor to leave the room. There are limits to how much he will instruct his son in the art of statecraft. Later, while dying, he tells Feodor not to inquire how his father reached the throne. This very pregnant hint, of course, belies Boris’ vain effort to shield his family from the fateful knowledge. He doesn’t lie, but then he does not tell the truth. And the lack of candor is intended as a help—or at least, this is what the audience has to assume. Their task of interpreting the operas only becomes more vexed when we consider the problem of Boris concealing things not only from people who ought to be able to trust him, such as his heir, but also from himself.

Since the Pretender can only exert pressure on Boris, the deterioration of tsar’s state of mind becomes the principal action of this epic opera. His four monologues track the accumulating process by which he is forced to acknowledge a crime he has tried not to recall. Here the presumed virtues of self-deceit come to mind; if Boris were able to forget that he ordered the assassination, he likely would have been able to rule more effectively. But remorse is weighing on his mind from his first words in the opera as he accepts the crown, public words hardly appropriate for “The Coronation Scene”:

My soul is sad!

Some involuntary fear

has gripped my heart

with ominous foreboding. (224)

With “O, God of righteousness” his next breath, one can readily conceive that a medieval tsar might fear divine punishment, but it is also symptomatic that Boris speaks as if he does not know the source of his dread. In his second monologue, in the Terem Scene that makes up Act II, things clear up some, but not completely. As the focal center of the opera and the most important soliloquy in Russian opera, it is worth citing in full:[14]

I have achieved supreme power,

For six years already

My rule has been peaceful

but there is no happiness

in my tormented soul. |

It is in vain that the soothsayers

promise me a long life

and days of untroubled power. |

Neither life, nor power,

nor the delusion of fame,

nor the shouts of the crowd

can cheer me! |

In my family

I imagined I would find happiness,

I prepared a joyous wedding feast

for my daughter,

my own innocent darling

the tsarevna. |

Like a storm, death

carried off the bridegroom! |

(grows pensive)

How heavily weighs

the right hand of the awesome judge,

how terrible his sentence

on the criminal soul . . .

All around there is but darkness

And impenetrable gloom!

If there were only

a ray of happiness! |

My heart is full of sorrow,

and my weary spirit

pines and languishes.

(in a whisper) |

Some kind of secret trepidation…

and you forever expect . . . |

With a fervent prayer

to the Lord’s saints

I imagined that I could silence

the sufferings of my soul…

amid all the grandeur and the splendor

of limitless power,

the master of all Russia, I begged

for tears of consolation . . . |

but I get reports: the sedition of the boyars,

the machinations of Lithuania, and

secret schemes to undermine our power.

Hunger, pestilence, earthquakes

and destruction . . .

Like a wild beast,

our plague-ridden people roam about;

poor, starving

Russia is groaning… |

and in our dire sorrow

sent down by God

for our grievous sins

as a trial,

I am named

the cause of all these misfortunes,

and on the squares

people curse the name of Boris! |

Even sleep eludes me

and in the darkness of the night

the blood-stained child rises up before me . . .

His eyes blaze

and clenching his little hands

he begs for mercy . . .

But there was no mercy!

The terrible wound gapes wide!

The sound of his

mortal cry . . .

(jumps up and sinks heavily into the chair.) |

O, Lord, o, my God . . . (290-94)

Obviously, Boris is suffering from depression; he repeatedly describes internal sensations. He soon returns to the ominous tone of his coronation speech, but note how he will not enunciate to himself its cause. Rather he points to “Some kind of secret trepidation,” senses divine retribution at hand and speaks of a “criminal soul,” but without acknowledging that it is his, even though he then mentions the sufferings of his soul and “tears of consolation.” Clearly his conscience is shaping the course of his thoughts. Family woes are replaced by those of the whole nation. Boris acknowledges only “our grievous sins,” albeit he is the one singled out by others for blame. Finally, he begins to imagine the dying tsarevich; since the crime took place not in Moscow but in Uglich, this is the product of his imagination, not something he could have remembered.

Boris comes closer to acknowledging his complicity shortly after his conversation with Shuisky regarding the inquest. Left alone in what is termed “The Clock Scene,” Boris begins to admit to himself what he must have always known, indeed could not possibly forget, and cannot put out of his mind: he speaks even more about internal sensations and hallucinates the approach of the murdered boy. Keep in mind that all the while he is talking to himself—and the audience—in private.

Ah, how painful;

let me get my breath.

I felt all my blood

rushing to my face

and then it drained away suddenly.

O, cruel conscience,

what a terrible punishment you exact!

(The stage darkens. The clock with its chimes springs into action)

If there is a single stain on you . . .

just one chance stain . . .

your soul burns

and your heart if filled with poison.

It becomes painful, so painful . . .

It hammers in your ears

with its reproaches and it curses . . .

it somehow suffocates you . . .

It suffocates . . .

and your head reels . . .

(The clock strikes eight.)

The bloodstained child

is in your eyes.

There . . . over there . . . what is it?

There, in the corner . . .

it is hovering, it is getting larger . . .

it is coming closer . . .  it quivers and groans…

Keep away, keep away . . .

It is not I . . . Not I who did you wrong…

It was the people . . . not I . . .

The will of the people!

Keep away, child! . . .

(Horrified, he covers his face with his hands, and sinks to his knees exhausted near the armchair.)

O Lord,

Thou dost not wish

to claim the life of a sinner . . .

have mercy on the soul of the

criminal Tsar Boris! . . .  (316-18)

Echoing Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy and pleading for understanding—much as he would if convicted by an actual judge—Boris personifies his guilt as his sentences begin to fragment. Eventually he addresses the hallucination and denies guilt, but then in apparent contradiction vainly tries to shift the blame onto others—and to lie to himself. Although he refers to himself as a “sinner” and a “criminal,” he never quite confesses to the crime. The next time he appears, in the “Duma Scene” of the last act, Boris once again is hallucinating the blood child and denying his guilt. Indeed, he insists, “the infant is alive, alive,” against all the evidence. (378) As he dies, he complains, “I am unable to atone for my sin with prayer!” and pleads for forgiveness, but still there is no confession. (392)

Somehow, all this is subject material for an opera, a genre which heretofore focused on the most dramatic and simplified situations where characters would be motivated to emote—loudly—with simple, as if sincere, expression. Obviously, things were changing by the time Boris was written. These scenes probably convince few modern viewers as genuine representations of depression, self-deceit, and hallucination, but they constitute an enormous advance on previous achievements not only in opera but also on the dramatic stage. “Rage” arias were a common occasion for heightened emotions in Baroque opera seria. Mad scenes had been featured in Romantic works like Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet and Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, but these were still more pretexts for vocal fireworks by the lead sopranos than an occasion for psychological insights. Ophelia and Lucia’s sudden onsets of insanity releases these women from inhibitions, allowing them to express extreme states of mind in a very public manner. But no vocal gymnastics are on display in Boris, where the tsar simultaneously confesses and attempts to conceal things from himself. Rather the singer of the title role has to convey numerous transitions in both his singing and gesture to reflect the many different things passing through his mind. Not until Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) or Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945) will opera approach, let alone exceed, this degree of psychological verisimilitude.[15]

The notion of a criminal tsar, let alone a deranged one, must have had greatresonance for Russians living under the monarchy. After all, it was illegal to depict members of the Romanov dynasty on stage until 1837. This is one reason why Russian artists took so much interest in the previous dynasty and the Time of Troubles—it was their closest point of access to discussion of their own politics.[16] This ban continued in opera until the late 1860s. The tsar (Mikhail Romanov) does not even appear in Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar (1836). Pushkin’s tragedy was only cleared for production in 1866. Musorgsky started work on its adaptation before the play was first staged in 1870. In other words, however exotic to our eyes and ears, the play and opera conveyed the most up-to-date political commentary available to Russian stages.[17] Notably, at about this time other plays and operas were staged regarding the late sixteenth century. Boris and Rimsky-Korsakov’s two operas regarding Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), Maid of Pskov and Tsar’s Bride, remind us of the special interest generated when the sanity of the criminal tsar is suspect, as in the case of Boris’ hallunications. Indeed, politics thus becomes synonymous with psychology. The monarch’s power to awe is enhanced by the “Mad Dog strategy” described by Geoffrey F. Miller: it befits a monarch to exhibit an unpredictable anger threshold, since “the definition of despotism is the power of arbitrary life and death over subordinates” (1997: 323). This, of course, attracts yet more attention.

Boris’ appeal to foreign and later Russian audiences might be by analogy to political regimes in general. Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera originally depicted the assassination of Sweden’s King Gustav III, but, being produced shortly after an attempt on Napoleon III’s life, censors in Italy feared the theme of regicide and forced the composer to relocate the action to colonial Boston. Perhaps Americans, to cite just one possible example, do not select their presidents according to the “divine right of kings,” but political relationships usually come down to the same interpersonal issue: whom do you trust or respect or fear? (We could add other verbs) Politics thus necessarily engage social intelligence; we continually scrutinize each other, paying special interest in those who might influence our lives. And the more information regarding how they really think, so it seems, the better. Such, at least, is the conclusion we derive from Boris.

With the exception noted above (guilt of the tsar), Boris is a remarkably accurate depiction of Russia between 1598 and 1605. Moreover, its historiography strikingly anticipates modern views; the “great man” view of history is undercut, crowds hold more sway over events—the chorus is relatively divided, able to carry on internal conversations, wherein individuals more discernibly look out for themselves—many more lines of causality are noted, the entire country seems to be involved, and, most importantly, the course of history is itself presented as an incredibly complex, virtually chaotic and uncontrollable process.

Boris was the first opera to reach the stage by the “Mighty Five,” a group of composers who were dedicated to Russian themes. The Five were also devoted to truth in the sense of their music representing the natural inflections of Russian speech. It is quite evident from their statements that their ultimate interest was psychological verisimilitude. As he worked on Boris, Musorgsky wrote, “my music must be the artistic reproduction of human speech, as the exterior manifestion of thought and feeling, must, without exaggeration of strain, become music—truthful, accurate, but artistic, in the highest sense artistic (cited in Taruskin, 1993: 73-74). Note the virtues Stasov saw in Musorgsky’s experimental opera, The Marriage: “There is no convolution of thought, feeling, transient mood, mimetic movement, spiritual or even purely physicial expression that Musorgsky’s music has not here reproduced” (cited in Taruskin, 1993: 93). Clearly musical symmetry was to be subservient to representation of actual states of the mind. Musorgsky and his compatriots were much influenced in their movement by Georg Gottfried Gervinus, who called for “not only the understanding of speech but also empathy with that which is being said. It often happen that inner nervous stresses, which arise in the soul under the influence of external vivid impression, seek a keener outlet [than is provided by the verbal content of the utterance]” (cited and clarified by Taruskin, 1993: 77). Music was seen as having the ability, superior to spoken language, to quickly and more directly evoke diverse states of mind, often simultaneously, thus yielding a greater psychological complexity.

Boris’ monologues in Act II mark the apex of psychological verisimilitude in 19th century dramatic music. Although Musorgsky was faithful to Pushkin’s text for the most part elsewhere in the opera, he altered the play notably in terms of making his portrait of the tsar more incisive, the states of his mind more extreme.[18] The “Clock Scene” is entirely his composition. Most importantly, musical form is sacrificed in favor of providing nuance to the words, to suggest the states of the mind that underlie them. Musical passages are not repeated in a symmetrical manner; Musorgsky, no doubt, observed that neither are our thoughts. He uses some recurring leitmotifs to suggest associations, but there is no development, which allows a greater degree of musical and psychological diversity. Generally the vocal line follows the text, usually cutting a new melodic line, while the orchestral accompaniment faithfully amplifies the semantic contents of each phrase. Cesar Cui, another member of the Five, observed how in this opera “The music fuses with the text to such a degree that having heard the phrases it is no longer possible to separate the text from the music” (cited in Emerson & Oldani, 1994: 137). Chaliapin attested to the “whole world of insights and emotions” in the music (cited in Emerson & Oldani 1994: 156). In effect, Musorgsky created a holistic impression of the tsar’s consciousness.[19] His “I have achieved supreme power” monologue is the most musically unstructured soliloquy written until its time; in the course of only five minutes of singing, there are at least a dozen loosely related passages of varying length, including some recurring leitmotifs, in what can no longer be termed an aria.[20] Tempi continually shift, as does orchestration. The music thus allows reference to several lines of thought occurring simultaneously.[21] This allows for an unprecedented degree of specificity in the rendering of Boris’ subjectivity. But there is yet less structure and more detail in the “Clock Scene” that concludes the act. Thoughts become yet more diverse, utterances are fragmented, as he loses his grip on sanity. Notably, many words refer to his internal sensations, culminating with his hallucination, as he increasingly resorts to shouts. Truly, no one bared his soul in opera for us heretofore more than did Musorgsky’s Tsar Boris. But his desperate assertion that “It was… the will of the people” is a blatant falsehood. He is still lying.


Baron-Cohen, Simon (1997) “How to build a baby that can read minds: Cognitive mechanisms in mindreading,” in Simon Baron-Cohen, ed., The Maladapted Mind: Classic Readings in Evolutionary Psychopathology. East Sussex: Psychology Press, pp. 207-240.

Bogdan, Radu J. (2000) Minding Minds: Evolving a Reflexive Mind by Interpreting Others. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cooke, Brett (2006) “Natural Psychology in the Evolution of Russian Prose,” unpublished paper presented to the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, Philadelphia.

Cooke, Brett (2008) “Compliments and Complements,” Style, 42: 150-54.

Cooke, Brett (2010) “Clichés Worth Singing: Narrative Commonplaces in Opera,” The Evolutionary Review, 1: 76-81.

Elliott, Martha (2006) Singing in Style: A Guide to Vocal Performance Practices. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Emerson, Caryl, & Robert William Oldani (1994) Modest Musorgsky and Boris Godunov: Myths, Realities, Reconsiderations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fiedler, Leslie A. (1960) Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Criterion.

Layton, Robert (1998) “The Quintessential Russian Opera,” in Modest Mussorgsky, Boris Godunov. Philips Records, pp. 18-22.

Miller, Geoffrey F. (1997) “Protean primates: The evolution of adaptive unpredictability in competition and courtship,” in Andrew Whiten and Richard W. Byrne, eds., Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 312-340.

Mirsky, D. S. (1958), A History of Russian Literature from Its Beginnings to 1900, ed. by Francis J. Whitfield. New York: Vintage Books.

Musorgsky, Modest (1998) [1872], Boris Godunov, libretto translated by Philip Taylor, Philips Records.

Schaller, Mark, Justin H. Park, and Douglas T. Kenrick (2007) “Human Evolution and Social Cognition,” in R. I. M. Dunbar and Louise Barrett, eds., Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 491-504.

Taruskin, Richard (1993) Mussorgsky: Eight Essays and an Epilogue. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Zunshine, Lisa (2006) Why We Read Fiction; Theory of Mind and the Novel, Columbus; Ohio State University Press.


[1] See Cooke 2010 for how this repertory is determined.

[2] An elderly lady attending the premiere said, “What kind of opera is this? There is no music in it at all. But I have to say that I never took my eyes from the stage the whole time” (cited in Emerson & Oldani, 1994: 98).

[3] Robert Layton says “in its central character Mussorgsky has given us what one might call the most commanding and gripping musical portrayal in all Russian opera past and present, ” indeed, that “there is surely no more fully rounded psychological portrayal in opera than Mussorgsky’s tsar.” (18, 22)

[4] Sometimes this even includes gods and devils: Faust, Mefistofele, and Wagner’s Ring des Nibelung come to mind, the latter culminating in Gotterdammerung.

[5] It is also questionable whether Dmitry, as the son of Ivan’s seventh wife, would have been eligible to inherit the throne.

[6] The textology of Boris Godunov remains one of the most vexed in opera. Following Taruskin, Emerson, and Oldani’s careful studies of the relationship of the different versions, we are basing our study of the opera on the composer’s 1872 revision as the best representation of his wishes. It is largely the version that is performed today. For ease of reference, here is the 1872 order of scenes:

Prologue, Scene 1: Novodevichy Monastery gates

Scene 2: Coronation Scene

Act I,   Scene 1: Cell Scene

Scene 2: Inn Scene

Act II: Terem Scene (ends with “The Clock Scene”)

Act III, Scene 1: Marina’s Boudoir

Scene 2: Fountain Scene

Act IV, Scene 1: Duma Scene

Scene 2: Kromy Forest Scene

Citations of the opera are from Philip Taylor’s translation for the Gergiev/Philips recording.

[7] Presumably Marina is steered into her arrangement with “Dmitry,” by her family, who have ambitions of their own; they hope she and her children, their descendents, will establish a new Russian dynasty. It is an indication of the evil of the Polish side in Pushkin’s play that her family is willing to subject their daughter to the dangers of the Pretender’s campaign, even though they have heard rumors that he is in fact only a renegade novice. Perhaps they are operating on a cost/benefit analysis of the situation. If, as others say, “Dmitry” is only Grishka, then they risk only their daughter and part of their army. But if the Pretender’s claim, whether bonafide or not, suffices to gain the throne in Moscow, then Marina’s becoming tsaritsa stands to gain all of them incredible riches and advantages, easily sufficient to justify the risk undertaken. As we noted above, the historical Marina was an opportunist who subsequently launched the same campaign by recognizing as her husband a red bearded stranger who clearly was neither Dmitry nor Grishka, and thus enjoyed the rare status of being tsaritsa to two different tsars. The Mniszeks’ calculated strategy could be regarded as an extreme case of hypergamy, whereby women and their blood relatives maximize her relatively limited reproductive potential by selecting mates who either possess or show prospects for great social status, i. e., quality. Usually a woman’s family will tend to conservatively protect her sexual reputation, but with such a rare and lucrative pay-off in prospect, they may be persuaded to make a telling compromise. As happened at least twice with the actual Marina, it was her and their only chance of her becoming members of Russia’s ruling family. Musorgsky mutes this theme in the opera, but instead creates a similar one with a scene involving a Jesuit priest persuading Marina to marry the Pretender. Rangoni brazenly tells Marina it is her mission to force Roman Catholism on Orthodox Russia even at the “sacrifice” of her “honor.” (334) He then arranges a secret meeting for her with “Dmitry.”

[8] Russians also know that “Dmitry” did not rule for as much as a year before he met with a similar fate, but this information is not necessary for appreciation of the opera.

[9] According to Geoffrey F. Miller, “animals living in complex social groups should regularly evolve mental adaptations for social perception, prediction, manipulation and exploitation” (1997: 316). Furthermore, Miller argues, “Since the vast majority of runaway processes that result in fast elaborations of behavioral capacities probably occur within species, the Machiavellian hypothesis scored an easy win over other, much weaker theories of human mental evolution”—such as tool-making, etc. (1997: 333). Radu J. Bogdan suggests, “it is their politics, more than other social activities, which spawned strong pressures for interpretive skills” (2000: 62).

[10] I make a similar case has been made for the history of Russian prose (2006).

[11] Leslie A. Fiedler describes this kind of thinking as characterizing literary history: “a psychic revolution . . . a new kind of self, a new level of mind; for what has been happening since the eighteenth century seems more like the development of a new organ than a mere finding of a new way to describe old experience.” (1960: 32-33, cited thanks to personal communication from Tim Horvath)

[12] According to Musorgsky’s stage direction in the “Cell Scene,” Grishka deceives Pimen by sitting with “feigned humility” (238).

[13] The chronicler Pimen, for all of his economia regarding honesty, is himself not above suspicion. One wonders what this former courtier and warrior is doing in a monastery. Does he bear any relation to Filaret Romanov, a prominent boyar forcibly cloistered, not incidentally the father of Mikhail Romanov, the boy who founded the Romanov dynasty in 1613? There is reason to believe that he might have ambitions of his own, which raises questions whether we trust his charges—but, as we shall see in Act II, they are confirmed by Boris’ monologues.

[14] Markings indicate junctures in the melodic content of the monologue for our musical analysis later.

[15] Richard Strauss and Oscar Wilde’s Salome ends with the title character’s necrophiliac dance with John the Baptist’s head. At the end of Strauss’ Elektra, the title character dances herself to death in celebration when her brother Orest kills their murderous mother and stepfather. These could be argued to constitute mad scenes. The eponymous heroes of Tristan und Isolde hallucinate about each other in an extended manner comparable to that of Boris.

[16] Pushkin’s Boris may be read as an attack on the Emperor Alexander I, who came to the throne in 1800 by engineering the assassination of his father, Paul. Pushkin detested Alexander, who was reigning was the poet wrote his play, living under house arrest at the tsar’s command.

[17] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart similarly decided to set Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, while the play—which deals with noble class sexual abuse of servants—was still banned in Austria.

[18] As exceptions to this statement, Marina’s Boudoir and the Kromny Forest scenes are entirely his own conception.

[19] Richard Taruskin claims that Boris marks how Musorgsky’s “realism had begun to ebb” (1993: 267). This is true in the sense that he abandoned the extreme word by word transcription of the rarely performed Marriage. But the arioso passages of the “I have achieved supreme power” monologue should be received as a more profound psychological citation of the moods that underlie Boris’ statements. Notably these are interwoven with others of less structured accompanied recitative. Taruskin himself acknowledges Feodor Chaliapin’s “musically unstructured rendition of the solo part” in his 1928 recording (1993: 278n.).

[20] These are marked in our citation of the monologue.

[21] Cf. Robert W. Oldani’s scansion of how Musorgsky uses harmony for similar thematic associations (Emerson & Oldani, 1994: 255-56).

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