Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov

[bawr-is god-n-awf, -of, good-, bohr-; bor-; Russ. buh-ryees guh-doo-nawf]
Boris Godunov: see Godunov, Boris.
Godunov, Boris, c.1551-1605, czar of Russia (1598-1605). A favorite of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible), he helped organize Ivan's social and administrative system. After Ivan's death (1584), Boris became virtual ruler of Russia, ostensibly as regent for Ivan's young son Feodor I, who was married to Boris's sister. Boris was popularly believed to have ordered the murder (1591) of Feodor's younger brother and heir, Dmitri, in order to secure the succession for himself. Upon Feodor's death (1598), an assembly of the ruling class chose Boris as czar. Under his rule the Russian church was recognized (1589) as an independent patriarchate, equal to other Eastern churches; peace was obtained with Poland and Sweden, and colonization of the southern steppes and W Siberia was spurred. Most important, Boris continued Ivan's policy of strengthening the power of state officials and townspeople at the expense of the boyars. Yet famine (1602-4) and popular distrust undermined his support, and when a pretender to the throne appeared claiming to be Feodor's brother Dmitri, many rallied to his support and he easily invaded Russia in 1604. Boris died, and his son, Feodor II, was unable to defend the throne against the false Dmitri. Boris's life is the subject of a drama by Pushkin that was the basis for Moussorgsky's famous opera.
Boris Godunov (Борис Годунов, original orthography Борисъ Годуновъ, Borís Godunóv) is an opera by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). The work was composed between 1868 and 1874 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It is Mussorgsky's only completed opera and is considered his masterpiece. Its subject is the Russian ruler Boris Godunov, who reigned as Tsar from 1598 to 1605. The libretto was written by the composer, and is based on the drama of the same name by Aleksandr Pushkin, and on Nikolay Karamzin's History of the Russian State. The composer created two distinct versions. The Original Version of 1869 was not approved for production. Mussorgsky completed a Revised Version in 1872, and this version eventually received its first performance in 1874. The music is written in a uniquely Russian style, drawing on his knowledge of Russian folk music and rejecting the influence of German and Italian opera.


Composition history

Note: Dates provided in this article for events taking place in Russia before 1918 are Old Style.

By the close of 1868, Mussorgsky had already started and abandoned two important opera projects — the antique, exotic, romantic tragedy Salammbô, written under the influence of Serov's Judith, and the contemporary, Russian, anti-romantic farce The Marriage, influenced by Dargomïzhsky's The Stone Guest. Mussorgsky's next project would be a very original and successful synthesis of the opposing styles of these two experiments — the romantic-lyrical style of Salammbô, and the realistic style of The Marriage.

In the autumn of 1868, Vladimir Nikolsky, a professor of Russian literature and an authority on Pushkin, suggested to Mussorgsky the idea of composing an opera on the subject of Pushkin’s drama Boris Godunov. Boris had finally been approved for performance by the state censors in 1866.

Mussorgsky began work in October 1868 preparing his own libretto. Pushkin’s drama consists of 24 scenes, written predominantly in blank verse. Mussorgsky adapted the most theatrically effective scenes, often preserving Pushkin’s verses, and augmented these with his own lyrics. He was assisted by a study of History of the Russian State by Karamzin, to whom Pushkin’s drama is dedicated.

Mussorgsky worked rapidly, composing first the vocal score, and then the full score in about 14 months, at the same time working as a civil servant. The Original Version was completed by December 15, 1869. The score was submitted to a committee of the Imperial Theaters in 1870, but was rejected for performance, ostensibly for its lack of conventional prima donna and first tenor roles, but also, it is believed, for its novelty.

Mussorgsky began recasting and expanding Boris in 1871, adding three scenes (the two Sandomir scenes and the Kromï Scene), cutting one (the Vasiliy the Blessed Scene), and recomposing another (the Terem Scene). The modifications resulted in the addition of an important female role (Marina Mniszech), the expansion of existing female roles (additional songs for the Hostess, Fyodor, and the Nurse), and the expansion of the role of the Pretender. The Revised Version was finished June 23, 1872, and submitted to the Imperial Theaters in the autumn.

Mussorgsky's friends took matters into their own hands, arranging the performance of three scenes (the Inn and both Sandomir scenes) at the Mariinsky Theater on February 5, 1873. The response of the public and critics was enthusiastic:

This triumph paved the way for the first complete performance of the opera, which took place on January 27, 1874. The Mariinsky Theatre was sold out, and the performance was a great success with the public. Students sang choruses from the opera in the street. This time, however, the critical reaction was exceedingly hostile [see Critical Reception in this article for details].

Initial performances of Boris Godunov featured significant cuts. The entire Cell Scene was cut from the first performance, and there were substantial cuts to the 3rd and 4th Acts. How much Mussorgsky cooperated in making the cuts is not known with accuracy. After protracted difficulties in obtaining the production of his opera, he was compliant with the demands of the conductor Nápravník in ruthlessly excising large sections and even entire scenes from the work, and went so far as to defend these mutilations to his own supporters. Later performances tended to be even more heavily cut, including the removal of the entire Novodevichiy, Cell, and Kromï scenes.

Performance history

Note: Dates provided in this article for events taking place in Russia before 1918 are Old Style.

Performances of Excerpts

  • The Cathedral Square Scene (Coronation Scene) was performed on 5 February 1872, by the Russian Music Society in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Eduard Nápravník.
  • The Polonaise from Act III was performed on 3 April 1872, at the Free School of Music in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Mily Balakirev.
  • Three scenes from the opera – the Inn Scene, Scene in Marina's Boudoir, and Scene in the Garden of Mniszech's Castle – were performed on 5 February 1873, at the Mariinsky Theater, Saint Petersburg, conducted by Eduard Nápravník. The cast was as follows:

Hostess – Darya Leonova, mezzo-soprano
Pretender – Fyodor Komissarzhevsky, tenor
Varlaam – Osip Petrov, bass
Marina – Yuliya Platonova, soprano
Rangoni – Gennadiy Kondratyev, baritone

Saint Petersburg Premiere (World Premiere)

  • Date: 27 January 1874
  • Place: Mariinsky Theater, Saint Petersburg, Russia
  • Conductor: Eduard Nápravník
  • Producer: Gennady Kondratyev
  • Set Designers: Matvey Shishkov, Mikhail Bocharov

Moscow Premiere

Original Interpreters

Role Voice Saint Petersburg 1874 Moscow 1888 Paris 1908
Boris bass or baritone Ivan Melnikov Bogomir Korsov Fyodor Shalyapin
Fyodor mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Krutikova Salina
Kseniya soprano Wilhelmina Raab Karatayeva
The Nurse mezzo-soprano or contralto Olga Shreder (Schröder) Pavlova
Shuysky tenor P. Vasiliyev Anton Bartsal Ivan Alchevsky
Shchelkalov baritone Sobolev Figurov
Pimen bass Vladimir Vasiliyev Butenko Vladimir Kastorsky
Pretender tenor Fyodor Komissarzhevsky Lavrentiy Donskoy Dmitriy Smirnov
Marina mezzo-soprano Yuliya Platonova Mariya Klimentova Nataliya Yermolenko-Yuzhina
Rangoni bass Josef Paleček Borisov
Varlaam bass Osip Petrov Vladimir Streletsky Vasiliy Sharonov
Misail tenor Pavel Dyuzhikov
The Hostess mezzo-soprano Antonina Abarinova Gnucheva
Yurodivïy tenor Bulakhov Mitrofan Chuprïnnikov
Nikitich bass Mikhail Sariotti
Mityukha bass Lyadov
Boyar-in-attendance tenor Sobolev Aleksandr Dodonov
Khrushchov tenor Matveyev
Lavitsky bass Vasiliyev
Chernikovsky bass Sobolev

Subsequent Performances

The work was performed 21 times during the composer's lifetime, and 5 times after his death (in 1881) before being withdrawn from the repertory on November 8, 1882.

Important Premieres

Date City Opera House Conductor Boris Version
27 Jan 1874 Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theater Eduard Nápravník Ivan Melnikov Revised Version 1872
16 Dec 1888 Moscow Bolshoy Theater Ippolit Altani Bogomir Korsov Revised Version 1872
4 Dec 1896 Saint Petersburg Great Hall of the Conservatory Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov Mikhail Lunacharsky Rimsky-Korsakov 1896
7 Dec 1898 Moscow Solodovnikov Theater Iosif Truffi Fyodor Shalyapin Rimsky-Korsakov 1896
19 May 1908 Paris Paris Opera Felix Blumenfeld Fyodor Shalyapin Rimsky-Korsakov 1908
19 Mar 1913 New York Metropolitan Opera Arturo Toscanini Adamo Didur Rimsky-Korsakov 1908
24 Jun 1913 London Theatre Royal, Drury Lane Pierre Monteux Fyodor Shalyapin Rimsky-Korsakov 1908
16 Feb 1928 Leningrad State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet Vladimir Dranishnikov Mark Reyzen Original Version 1869
4 Nov 1959 Leningrad Kirov Theater Sergey Yeltsin Boris Shtokolov Shostakovich 1940

Publication history

  • 1874, piano vocal score by Modest Mussorgsky, Revised Version, V. Bessel and Co., Saint Petersburg
  • 1896, edition by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, drastically edited and cut form of the 1874 vocal score, V. Bessel and Co., Saint Petersburg
  • 1908, edition by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, drastically edited form of the 1874 vocal score, V. Bessel and Co., Saint Petersburg
  • 1928, piano vocal score edition by Pavel Lamm and Boris Asafyev, Original and Revised Versions, Muzsektor, Moscow, Oxford University Press, London
  • 1963, full score edition by Dmitriy Shostakovich, Original and Revised Versions, orchestration of Lamm's vocal score, Muzgiz
  • 1975, full score edition by David Lloyd-Jones, Original and Revised Versions, Oxford University Press, London

Critical reception

As the most daring and innovative member of the group of composers known as the Mighty Handful, Mussorgsky frequently became the target of conservative critics and rival composers, and was often derided for his supposedly clumsy and crude musical idiom:

Reviews of the premiere performance of Boris Godunov were for the most part hostile. Some critics dismissed the work as "noisy", "chaotic", and "a cacophony". Even his friends Balakirev and César Cui, leading members of the Kuchka, minimized his accomplishment. Unable to overlook Mussorgsky's "trespasses against the conventional musical grammar of the time" (Calvocoressi), they failed to recognize the giant step forward in musical and dramatic expression that Boris Godunov represented. Cui betrayed Mussorgsky in a notoriously scathing review of the premiere performance:

Although he found much to admire, he criticized the composer for a poorly constructed libretto, and found the opera to exhibit a lack of cohesion between scenes, making it more a musical Shakespearean chronicle than an opera. He also claimed Mussorgsky was so deficient in the ability to write instrumental music that he dispensed with composing a prelude.

Of the critics who evaluated the new opera, only one fully recognized Mussorgsky's particular genius and skill:

Although Boris Godunov is usually praised for its originality, for the dramatic power of its choruses, for its sharply delineated characters, and for the powerful psychological portrayal of Tsar Boris, it has received an inordinate amount of criticism for technical shortcomings: weak or faulty harmony, counterpoint, part-writing, and orchestration. The perception that Boris needed correction due to Mussorgsky's poverty of technique prompted his friend Rimsky-Korsakov to revise it after his death. His edition supplanted the composer's Revised Version of 1872 in Russia, and launched the work in the world's opera houses, remaining the preferred edition for some 75 years [see Versions by Other Hands in this article for more details]. For decades, critics and scholars pressing for the performance of Mussorgsky's own versions fought a losing battle against the conservatism of conductors and singers, who, raised on the plush Rimsky-Korsakov version, found it impossible to adapt to the composer's comparatively unrefined and bleak original scores.

Recently, however, a new appreciation for the rugged individuality of Mussorgsky's style has resulted in increasing performances and recording of his original versions.

For many, Boris Godunov is the greatest of all Russian operas because of its originality, power, and theatricality, regardless of any cosmetic imperfections it may possess.

The drama

  • Narrative and dramatic impetus
  • Psychological depth of the main characters
  • Socio-political subtext

The music

  • Skillful musical characterization
  • Thematic development
  • Key themes borrowed from Salammbô
  • Use of leitmotive
  • Use of modes
  • Speech melody


Authentic Versions

  • Original Version, 1869
  • Revised Version, 1872
  • Piano Vocal Score, 1874

The Original Version of 1869 is rarely heard. Its main attractions are that it provides an interesting alternative in the Terem Scene to that of the 1872 version, it contains the dramatic Scene at the Cathedral of Vasiliy the Blessed (St. Basil's Scene), and it is not disfigured by any of the cuts the composer made in later versions of the work. The terse Terem Scene of the 1869 version and the momentum and unrelieved tension of the two subsequent and final scenes make this version more dramatically effective to some critics.

The Revised Version of 1872 is longer, is richer in musical and theatrical variety, and presents the title character in a somewhat more sympathetic and tragic light in the central Terem Scene. However, some critics maintain that the addition of songs to the Terem Scene and the insertion of the Sandomir scenes immediately following it actually weaken rather than enhance the drama. This version has made a strong comeback in recent years, and is becoming the dominant version.

The Piano Vocal Score of 1874 was the first published form of the opera, and is essentially the 1872 version with some minor musical variants and small cuts.

The distribution of scenes in the authentic versions is as follows:

Scene Original Version 1869 Revised Version 1872
The Courtyard of the Novodevichiy Monastery Part 1, Scene 1 Prologue, Scene 1
Cathedral Square in the Moscow Kremlin Part 1, Scene 2 Prologue, Scene 2
A Cell in the Chudov Monastery Part 2, Scene 1 Act 1, Scene 1
An Inn on the Lithuanian Border Part 2, Scene 2 Act 1, Scene 2
The Tsar's Terem in the Moscow Kremlin Part 3 Act 2
Marina's Boudoir in Sandomir
Act 3, Scene 1
The Garden of Mniszech's Castle in Sandomir
Act 3, Scene 2
At the Cathedral of Vasiliy the Blessed Part 4, Scene 1
The Faceted Palace in the Moscow Kremlin Part 4, Scene 2 Act 4, Scene 1
A Forest Glade near Kromï
Act 4, Scene 2

Compared to the 1869 version, the 1872 version has lost one scene (Vasily the Blessed) and gained three (the two Sandomir scenes and the Kromï Scene). The composer initially replaced the Vasily the Blessed Scene with the Kromï Scene. However, on the suggestion of Nikolsky, he transposed the order of the last two scenes, concluding the opera with the Kromï Scene rather than the Faceted Palace Scene. This gives the overall structure of the opera the following symmetrical form:

People - Boris - Grigoriy - Boris - Grigoriy - Boris - People

Later, Rimsky-Korsakov transposed the last two scenes back again in his revision. Critics often mention that in doing so he shifted the focus of the opera from a tragedy of the Russian people to the tragedy of an individual.

Mussorgsky also rewrote the Terem Scene for the 1872 version, modifying the text, adding new songs and plot devices (the parrot and the clock), modifying the psychological treatment of the title character, and virtually recomposing the music of the entire scene.

Other important modifications in the 1872 version are:

  • Prologue, Scene 1 (Novodevichiy Scene) – The conclusion is cut (in the Synopsis below, the bracketed portion).
  • Act 1, Scene 1 (Cell Scene) – Pimen's narrative of the scene of Dmitriy's murder is cut. In addition, the composer added some offstage choruses of monks.
  • Act 1, Scene 2 (Inn Scene) – The 'Song of the Drake' is added (just after the introduction).
  • Act 4, Scene 1 (Faceted Palace Scene) – 'Shchelkalov's Address' is cut (just after the introduction).

Editions by Other Hands

The Rimsky-Korsakov Version of 1908 has been the most traditional version over the last century. It resembles the Vocal Score of 1874, but the order of the last two scenes is reversed [see Versions by Other Hands in this article for more details].

Performance practice

A conflation (composite) of the 1869 and 1872 versions is often made when staging or recording Boris Godunov. This typically involves choosing the 1872 version and augmenting it with the Vasiliy the Blessed Scene (St. Basil's Scene) from the 1869 version. This strategy is popular because the Vasiliy the Blessed Scene is generally acknowledged to be too fine to omit. However, because the composer transferred the scene of the Yurodivïy and the urchins from the Vasiliy the Blessed Scene to the Kromï Scene when revising the opera, restoring the Vasiliy the Blessed Scene to its former location creates a problem of duplicate scenes, which can be partially solved by cuts. Most performances cut the robbery of the Yurodivïy in the Kromï Scene, but duplicate his lament that ends each scene.

Other examples of conflation:

  • The Rimsky-Korsakov Version is often augmented with the Ippolitov-Ivanov reorchestration of the Vasiliy the Blessed Scene (first performed in 1927).
  • Conductors sometimes elect to restore the cuts the composer himself made (or sanctioned) in writing the 1872 version [see Comparison of the Authentic Versions in this article for more details].


Mussorgsky Orchestration

Rimsky-Korsakov Orchestration:

  • Strings: Violins, Violas, Cellos, Double Basses
  • Woodwinds: 2 Flutes, 1 Flute/Piccolo, 1 Oboe, 1 Oboe/English Horn, 2 Clarinets, 1 Clarinet/Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons
  • Brass: 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, 1 Tuba
  • Percussion: Timpani, Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Tambourine, Cymbals
  • Other: Piano, Harp
  • On/Offstage: 1 Trumpet, Bells, Tam-tam

Shostakovich Orchestration:

  • Strings: Violins, Violas, Cellos, Double Basses
  • Woodwinds: 2 Flutes, 1 Flute/Piccolo, 2 Oboes, 1 English Horn, 2 Clarinets, 1 Clarinet/E-flat clarinet, 1 Bass Clarinet, 2 Bassoons, 1 Bassoon/Contrabassoon
  • Brass: 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, 1 Tuba
  • Percussion: Timpani, Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Cymbals, Tam-tam, Triangle, Bells, Glockenspiel, Xylophone
  • Other: Piano, Harp, Celesta
  • On/Offstage: 4 Trumpets, 2 Cornets, 2 Horns, 2 Baritone Horns, 2 Euphoniums, 2 Tubas, Balalaika and Domra ad libitum

Roles and setting

Source: 100 Опер, Издательство «Музыка», Ленинград


Russian English Voice
Борис Годунов Boris Godunov bass or baritone
Фёдор, его сын Fyodor, his son mezzo-soprano
Ксения, его дочь Kseniya, his daughter soprano
Мамка Ксении Kseniya's nurse mezzo-soprano or contralto
Князь Василий Иванович Шуйский Prince Vasiliy Ivanovich Shuysky tenor
Андрей Щелкалов, думный дьяк Andrey Shchelkalov, Secretary of the Duma baritone
Пимен, летописец-отшельник Pimen, chronicler-hermit bass
Самозванец под именем Григория The Pretender going by the name Grigoriy tenor
Марина Мнишек, дочь сандомирского воеводы Marina Mniszech, daughter of the Sandomir Voyevoda mezzo-soprano
Рангони, тайный иезуит Rangoni, covert Jesuit bass
Варлаам, бродяга Varlaam, vagabond bass
Мисаил, бродяга Misail, vagabond tenor
Шинкарка An innkeeper mezzo-soprano
Юродивый The Yurodivïy tenor
Никитич, пристав Nikitich, a police officer bass
Митюха, крестьянин Mityukha, a peasant bass
Ближний боярин Boyar-in-Attendance tenor
Боярин Хрущов Khrushchov, a boyar tenor
Лавицкий, иезуит Lavitsky, Jesuit bass
Черниковский, иезуит Chernikovsky, Jesuit bass
Бояре, боярские дети, стрельцы, рынды, приставы, паны и пани, сандомирские девушки, калики перехожие, народ московский Boyars, the Boyars' children, streltsï, bodyguards, policemen, Polish nobles, Sandomir maidens, wandering minstrels, people of Moscow chorus, silent roles


Historical basis of the plot

An understanding of the drama of Boris Godunov may be facilitated by a basic knowledge of the historical events surrounding the Time of Troubles, the interregnum period of relative anarchy following the end of the Ryurik Dynasty (1598) and preceding the Romanov Dynasty (1613). Key events are as follows:

  • 1584Ivan IV "The Terrible", the first Grand Prince of Muscovy to officially adopt the title Tsar (Caesar), dies. Ivan’s successor is his feeble son Fyodor, now Fyodor I, who cares only for spiritual matters and leaves the affairs of state to his capable brother-in-law, boyar Boris Godunov, now de facto regent.
  • 1591 – Ivan’s other son Dmitry dies under mysterious circumstances in Uglich. An investigation, ordered by Godunov and carried out by Prince Vasily Shuysky, determines that the Tsarevich, while playing with a knife, had an epileptic seizure, fell, and died from a self-inflicted wound to the throat. Dmitriy's mother, Maria Nagaya, exiled with him to Uglich by Godunov, claims he was assassinated. Rumors linking Boris to the crime are circulated by his enemies.
  • 1598 – Tsar Fyodor I dies. He is the last in a line of representatives of the Ryurik Dynasty who have ruled Russia for 7 centuries. Patriarch Job of Moscow nominates Boris to succeed Fyodor I as Tsar, despite the rumors that Boris ordered the murder of Dmitry. Boris agrees to ascend the throne only if elected by the Zemsky Sobor. This the assembly does unanimously, and Boris is crowned the same year.
  • 1604 – A pretender to the throne appears, claiming to be Tsarevich Dmitry, but believed to be in reality one Grigory Otrepyev. He gains the support of the Polish aristocracy, and, obtaining a force of soldiers, he marches on Moscow. Crossing into Russia, Dmitry’s invasion force is joined by disaffected Cossacks. However, after a few victories, the campaign loses momentum.
  • 1605 – Boris dies of unknown causes. He is succeeded by his son Fyodor, now Fyodor II. The death of Boris gives new life to the campaign of the False Dmitry, who enters Moscow. Boyars who flock to his side murder Fyodor II and his mother. The False Dmitry is crowned. Prince Shuysky begins plotting against him.
  • 1606 – The Russian boyars are alarmed by Dmitri's Polish and Catholic alliances and his western habits. He is murdered shortly after wedding Marina Mniszech, and is succeeded by Vasily Shuysky, now Vasily IV.
  • 1610 – Vasily IV is deposed, and dies two years later in a Polish prison. Another pretender claiming to be Dmitry Ivanovich, False Dmitry II, is murdered.
  • 1611 – Yet a third pretender, False Dmitry III, appears. He is captured and executed in 1612.
  • 1613 – The Time of Troubles comes to a close with the accession of Mikhail Romanov, son of Fyodor Romanov, who had been persecuted under Boris Godunov's reign.

Note: The culpability of Boris in the matter of Dmitriy's death can neither be proved nor disproved. Karamzin accepted his guilt as fact, and Pushkin and Mussorgsky after him assumed it to be true, at least for the purpose of creating a tragedy in the mold of Shakespeare. Modern historians, however, tend to acquit Boris of the crime.


Shishkov and Bocharev designed the scenes used in the first complete performance in 1874. Some of their work accompanies the synopsis below.

() = Arias and numbers

[] = ''Passages cut from or added to the 1872 Revised Version [see Comparison of the authentic versions in this article for details]

The Courtyard of the Novodevichiy Monastery near Moscow (1598). There is a brief introduction foreshadowing the 'Dmitriy Motif'. The curtain opens on a crowd in the courtyard of the monastery, where the weary regent Boris Godunov has temporarily retired. Nikitich the police officer orders the assembled people to kneel. He goads them to clamor for Boris to accept the throne. They sing a chorus of supplication ("To whom dost thou abandon us, our father?"). The people are bewildered about their purpose and soon fall to bickering with each other, resuming their entreaties only when the policeman threatens them with his club. Their chorus reaches a feverish climax. Andrey Shchelkalov, the Secretary of the Duma, appears from inside the convent, informs the people that Boris still refuses the throne of Russia ("Orthodox folk! The boyar is implacable!"), and requests that they pray that he will relent. An approaching procession of pilgrims sings a hymn ("Glory to Thee, Creator on high"), exhorting the people to crush the spirit of anarchy in the land, take up holy icons, and go to meet the Tsar. They disappear into the monastery. [The people discuss the statements of the pilgrims. Many remain bewildered about the identity of this Tsar. The police officer interrupts their discussion, ordering them to appear the next day at the Moscow Kremlin. The people move on, stoically exclaiming "if we are to wail, we might as well wail at the Kremlin".]

[[Cathedral Square in Moscow|[Cathedral] Square]] in the Moscow Kremlin (1598). The unforgettable orchestral introduction is based on bell motifs. From the porch of the Cathedral of the Dormition, Prince Shuysky exhorts the people to glorify Tsar Boris. As the people sing a great chorus of praise ("Like the glory of the beautiful sun in the sky"), a solemn procession of boyars exits the cathedral. The people kneel. Boris appears on the porch of the cathedral. The shouts of "Glory!" reach a crescendo and subside. Boris addresses the people with a brief monologue ("My soul grieves") betraying a feeling of ominous foreboding. He prays for God's blessing, and hopes to be a good and just ruler. He invites the people to a great feast, and then proceeds to the Cathedral of the Archangel to kneel at the tombs of Russia's past rulers. The people wish Boris a long life ("Glory! Glory! Glory!"). A crowd breaks toward the cathedral. The police officers struggle to maintain order. The people resume their shouts of "Glory!"

A Cell in the Chudov Monastery [within the Moscow Kremlin] (1603). Pimen, an aged monk, writes a chronicle ("Yet one last tale") of Russian history. The young novice Grigoriy awakes from a horrible (and prophetic) dream, which he relates to Pimen, in which he climbed a high tower, was mocked by the people of Moscow, and fell. Pimen advises him to fast and pray. Grigoriy voices his regret that he retired so soon from worldly affairs to become a monk. He envies Pimen's early life of adventure. Pimen speaks approvingly of Ivan the Terrible and his son Fyodor, who both exhibited great spiritual devotion, and draws a contrast with Boris, a regicide. [At Grigoriy's request, Pimen tells the vivid details of the scene of the murder of Dmitry Ivanovich, which he witnessed in Uglich.] Upon discovering the similarity in age between himself and the murdered Tsarevich, Grigoriy immediately conceives the idea of posing as the Pretender. As Pimen departs for Matins, Grigoriy declares that Boris shall escape neither the judgment of the people, nor that of God.

An Inn on the Lithuanian Border (1603). There is a brief orchestral introduction based on three prominent themes from this scene. [The Hostess enters and sings the 'Song of the Drake' ("I have caught a gray drake"). It is interrupted towards the end by approaching voices.] The vagrants Varlaam and Misail, who are begging for alms, and their companion Grigoriy, who is in secular garb, arrive and enter. After exchanging greetings, the rascally Varlaam requests some wine. When the Hostess returns with a bottle, he drinks and launches into a ferocious song ("It happened in the city of Kazan") of Ivan the Terrible's siege of Kazan. The two monks quickly become tipsy, and soon begin to doze. Grigoriy quietly asks the Hostess for directions to the Lithuanian border. Policemen appear in search of a fugitive heretic monk (Grigoriy) who has run off from the Chudov Monastery declaring that he will become Tsar in Moscow. Noticing Varlaam's suspicious behavior, the lead policeman thinks he has found his man. He cannot read the edict he is carrying, however, so Grigoriy volunteers to read it. He does so, but, eyeing Varlaam carefully, he substitutes Varlaam's description for his own. The policemen quickly seize Varlaam, who protests his innocence and asks to read the edict. He haltingly reads the description of the suspect, which of course matches Grigoriy. Grigoriy brandishes a dagger, and leaps out of the window. The men set off in pursuit.

The Interior of the Tsar's Terem in the Moscow Kremlin (1604). Kseniya, clutching a portrait of her betrothed who has died, sings a brief aria ("Where are you, my bridegroom?"). Her nurse and brother Fyodor attempt to cheer her up with some songs ("A gnat was chopping wood" and "A song of this and that"). Boris suddenly enters in an agitated state, briefly consoles Kseniya, and then sends her and her nurse to their own quarters. After encouraging his son to resume his studies, he gives vent to his emotions in a long and fine monologue ("I have attained supreme power"). At the end of this aria he reveals that he has been disturbed by a vision of a bloody child begging for mercy. A commotion breaks out in his children's quarters. Boris sends Fyodor to ascertain the nature of the disturbance. The boyar-in-attendance brings word of the arrival of Prince Shuysky, and reports a denunciation against him for his intrigues. Fyodor returns to relate the whimsical tale ("Our little parrot was sitting") of his pet parrot's escape. Boris advises Fyodor to beware of evil and cunning advisors such as Shuysky when he becomes Tsar. Shuysky enters just at that moment, bearing grave tidings. A Pretender has appeared in Lithuania. Boris angrily demands to know his identity. Shuysky fears the Pretender might attract a following bearing the name of Dmitriy. Shaken by this revelation, Boris dismisses Fyodor. Clearly on the edge of madness, he asks Shuysky whether he has ever heard of dead children rising from their graves to interrogate Tsars. Boris wants Shuysky's assurance that the dead child he had seen in Uglich was really Dmitriy. Shuysky confirms this in a brief and beautiful aria ("In Uglich, in the cathedral"). But he gives hints that a miracle has occurred. Boris begins choking in a paroxysm of guilt and remorse, and gives a sign for Shuysky to depart. A clock begins chiming. Boris hallucinates (Hallucination or 'Clock' Scene). The spectre of the dead Dmitriy reaches out to him. Addressing the apparition, he denies his responsibility for the crime: "Begone, begone child! Not I... the will of the people!" He collapses, praying that God will have mercy on his guilty soul.

Marina's Boudoir in Sandomir, Poland (1604). Maidens sing a delicate, sentimental song ("On the blue Vistula") to entertain Marina as her chambermaid dresses her hair. Marina declares her preference for heroic songs of chivalry. She dismisses everyone. Alone, she sings of her boredom ("How tediously and sluggishly"), of Dmitriy, and of her thirst for adventure, power, and glory. The Jesuit Rangoni enters and attempts to obtain Marina's promise that when she becomes Tsaritsa she will convert the heretics of Moscow (Russian Orthodox Church) to the true faith (Roman Catholicism). When Marina wonders why this should be her burden, Rangoni angrily declares that she shall stop short of nothing, including sacrificing her honor, to obey the dictates of the church. Marina expresses contempt of his hypocritical insinuations and demands he leave. As Rangoni ominously tells her she is in the thrall of infernal forces, Marina collapses in dread. Rangoni demands her obedience.

Mniszech's Castle in Sandomir. A Garden. A Fountain. A Moonlit Night (1604). Shimmering strings and harp accompany a pensive version of the 'Dmitriy Motif'. The Pretender dreams of an assignation with Marina in the garden of her father's castle. However, to his annoyance, Rangoni finds him. However, he brings news from Marina. She begs to speak with him. The Pretender resolves to throw himself at Marina's feet, begging her to be his wife and Tsaritsa. He entreats Rangoni to lead him to Marina. Rangoni, however, first wants the Pretender to consider him a father, allowing him to follow his every step and thought. The Pretender agrees not to part from him if he will only allow him to see Marina. Rangoni convinces the Pretender to hide as the Polish nobles issue from the castle dancing a polonaise (Polonaise). Marina flirts, dancing with an older man. The Poles sing of taking the Muscovite throne, defeating the army of Boris, and capturing him. They return to the castle. The Pretender comes out of hiding. Marina appears and calls to him. He is lovesick. She, however, only wants to know when he will be Tsar, and declares she can only be seduced by a throne and a crown. The Pretender kneels at her feet. She tells him to be off, and calls him a lackey. Having reached his limit, he tells her he will depart the next day to lead his army to Moscow and to his father's throne. Furthermore, as Tsar he will take pleasure in watching her come crawling back looking for her own lost throne, and will command everyone to laugh at her. She quickly changes her tune, and as they sing a duet ("O Tsarevich, I implore you"), she tells him she loves him. Rangoni slithers out of hiding to savor his accomplishment.

The Square before St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow (1605). A crowd mills about before the Cathedral of the Intercession (Vasiliy the Blessed) in Red Square. Many are beggars, and policemen occasionally appear. A group of men enters, discussing the anathema the deacon had declared on Grishka (Grigoriy) Otrepyev in the mass. They identify Grishka as being the Tsarevich. With growing excitement they sing of the advance of his forces to Kromï, of his intent to retake his father's throne, and of the death he will mete out to the Godunovs. A yuródivïy enters, pursued by urchins. He sings a nonsensical song ("The moon is flying, the kitten is crying"). The boys (urchins) greet him and rap on his metal hat. The yuródivïy has a kopek, which the urchins promptly steal. He whines pathetically. The Tsar's retinue issues from the Cathedral. The boyars distribute alms. In a powerful chorus ("Benefactor father (Give us bread)"), the hungry people beg for bread. As the chorus subsides, the yuródivïy's cries are heard. Boris asks why he cries. The yuródivïy reports the theft of his kopek and asks Boris to order the boys' slaughter, just as he did in the case of the Tsarevich. Shuysky wants the yuródivïy seized, but Boris instead asks for the holy man's prayers. As Boris exits, the yurodivïy declares he cannot pray for Tsar Herod. The yuródivïy then sings his lament ("Flow, flow, bitter tears!") about the fate of Russia.

The Faceted Palace in the Moscow Kremlin (1605). A session of the Duma is in progress. [The assembled boyars listen as Shchelkalov informs them of the Pretender's advance and requests they decide his fate.] After some arguments, the boyars agree ("Well, let's put it to a vote, boyars"), in a powerful chorus, that the Pretender and his sympathizers should be executed. Shuysky, whom they distrust, arrives with an interesting story. Upon leaving the Tsar's presence, he observed Boris attempting to drive away the ghost of the dead Tsarevich, exclaiming: "Begone, begone child!" The boyars accuse Shuysky of spreading lies. However, just at that moment, Boris enters, echoing Shuysky: "Begone child!" The boyars are horrified. After Boris comes to his senses, Shuysky informs him that a humble old man craves an audience. Pimen enters and tells the story ("One day, at the evening hour") of a blind man who heard the voice of the Tsarevich in a dream. Dmitry instructed him to go to Uglich and pray at his grave, for he has become a miracle worker in heaven. The man did as instructed and regained his sight. This story is the final blow for Boris. He calls for his son, declares he is dying ("Farewell, my son, I am dying"), and gives him final counsel. In a very dramatic and moving scene ("The bell! The funeral bell!"), he dies.

A Forest Glade near Kromï (1605). Tempestuous music accompanies the entry of a crowd of vagabonds who have captured the boyar Khrushchov. The crowd taunts him, then bows in mock homage ("Not a falcon flying in the heavens"). The yuródivïy enters, pursued by urchins. He sings a nonsensical song ("The moon is flying, the kitten is crying"). The urchins greet him and rap on his metal hat. The yuródivïy has a kopek, which the urchins promptly steal. He whines pathetically. Varlaam and Misail are heard in the distance singing of the crimes of Boris and his henchmen ("The sun and moon have gone dark"). They enter. The crowd gets worked up to a frenzy ("Broken free, gone on a rampage") denouncing Boris. Two Jesuits are heard in the distance chanting in Latin ("Domine, Domine, salvum fac"), praying that God will save Dmitriy. They enter. At the instigation of Varlaam and Misail, the vagabonds prepare to hang the Jesuits, who appeal to the Holy Virgin for aid. Processional music heralds the arrival of Dmitriy and his forces. Varlaam and Misail evidently do not recognize him as the companion they chased into Lithuania, and glorify him ("Glory to thee, Tsarevich!") along with the crowd. The Pretender calls those persecuted by Godunov to his side. He frees Khrushchov, and calls on all to march on Moscow. All exeunt except the Yuródivïy, who sings a plaintive song ("Flow, flow, bitter tears!") of the arrival of the enemy, of darkness coming, and of woe to Russia.

Principal arias and numbers

  • Chorus: "To whom dost thou abandon us, our father!" «На кого ты нас покидаешь, отец наш!» (People)
  • Aria: "Orthodox folk! The boyar is implacable!" «Православные! Неумолим боярин!» (Shchelkalov)
  • Chorus: "Like the glory of the beautiful sun in the sky" «Уж как на небе солнцу красному» (People)
  • Monologue: "My soul grieves" «Скорбит душа» (Boris)
  • Chorus: "Glory! Glory! Glory!" «Слава! Слава! Слава!» (People)
  • Aria: "Yet one last tale" «Еще одно, последнее сказанье» (Pimen)
  • Song: "It happened in the city of Kazan" «Как во городе было во Казани» (Varlaam)
  • Monologue: "I have attained supreme power" «Достиг я высшей власти» (Boris)
  • Scene: "Hallucination" or "Clock Scene" «Сцена с курантами» (Boris)
  • Aria: "How tediously and sluggishly" «Как томительно и вяло» (Marina)
  • Dance: "Polonaise" «Полонез» (Marina, Polish nobles)
  • Duet: "O Tsarevich, I implore you" «О царевич, умоляю» (Marina, Dmitry)
  • Chorus: "Well, let's put it to a vote, boyars" «Что ж? Пойдём на голоса, бояре» (Boyars)
  • Aria: "One day, at the evening hour" «Однажды, в вечерний час» (Pimen)
  • Aria: "Farewell, my son, I am dying" «Прощай, мой сын, умираю...» (Boris)
  • Scene: "The bell! The funeral bell!" «Звон! Погребальный звон!» (Boris, Fyodor, Chorus)
  • Song: "Flow, flow, bitter tears!" «Лейтесь, лейтесь, слёзы горькие!» (Yurodivïy)

Versions by other hands

Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov 1896 & 1908

After Mussorgsky's death in 1881, his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov undertook to put his scores in order, completing Khovanshchina, reconstructing Night on Bald Mountain, and "correcting" some songs. Next, he turned to Boris.

He experimented first with the Polonaise, scoring it for a Wagner-sized orchestra in 1888. In 1892 he revised the Coronation Scene, and completed the remainder of the opera in the 1874 Vocal Score, although with significant cuts, by 1896. He later completed another revision in 1908, this time restoring the cuts, adding some music to the Coronation Scene (because Diaghilev wanted more stage spectacle for the Paris premiere), and replacing the ending of Act III. These revisions went beyond mere reorchestration. He made substantial modifications to harmony, melody, dynamics, etc., even changing the order of scenes.

Rimsky-Korsakov immediately came under fire from some critics for altering Boris, particularly in France, where his revision was introduced. The defense usually made by his supporters was that without his ministrations, Mussorgsky's opera would have faded from the repertory due to difficulty in appreciating his raw and uncompromising idiom. Therefore, Rimsky-Korsakov was justified in making improvements to keep the work alive and increase the public's awareness of Mussorgsky's melodic and dramatic genius. The validity of this argument cannot be proven.

It must be admitted that some listeners simply find Rimsky-Korsakov's glossy version more aesthetically pleasing. His version of Boris Godunov remained the one usually performed in Russia, even after Mussorgsky's earthier original (1872) regained its place in Western opera houses.

Dmitry Shostakovich 1940

Dmitriy Shostakovich edited Boris Godunov in 1939–1940. He confined himself largely to reorchestrating the opera, and was more respectful of the composer's unique melodic and harmonic style. However, Shostakovich greatly increased the contributions of the woodwind and especially brass instruments to the score, a significant departure from the practice of Mussorgsky, who exercised great restraint in his instrumentation, preferring to utilize the individual qualities of these instruments for specific purposes. Shostakovich also aimed for a greater symphonic development, wanting the orchestra to do more than simply accompany the singers.

Shostakovich remembered Alexander Glazunov telling him how Mussorgsky himself played scenes from Boris at the piano. Mussorgsky's renditions, according to Glazunov, were brilliant and powerful — qualities Shostakovich felt did not come through in the orchestration of much of Boris. Shostakovich, who had known the opera since his student days at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, assumed that Mussorgsky's orchestral intentions were correct but that Mussorgsky simply could not realize them:

One of those "old shore" moments was the large momastery bell in the scene in the monk's cell. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov both use the gong. To Shostakovich, this was too elemental and simplistic to be effective dramatically, since this bel showed the atmosphere of the monk's estragement. "When the bell tolls," Shostakovich told Solomon Volkov, "it's a reminder that there are powers mightier than man, that you can't escape the judgment of history. Therefore, Shostakovich reorchestrated the bell's tolling by the simultaneous playing of seven instruments — bass clarinet, double bassoon, French horns, gong, harps, piano, and double basses (at an octave). To Shostakovich, this combination of instruments sounded more like a real bell.

Shostakovich admitted Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration was more colorful than his own and used brighter timbres. However, he also felt that Rimsky-Korsakov chopped up the melodic lines too much and, by blending melody and subvoices, may have subverted much of Mussorgsky's intent. Shostakovich also felt that Rimsky-Korsakov did not use the orchestra flexibly enough to follow the characters' mood changes, instead making the orchestra calmer, more balanced.


Most recent recordings of Boris Godunov (circa last 25 years) use the composer’s 1872 version as a base. Classic recordings of the past use the Rimsky-Korsakov version of 1908.

The following list contains all major studio recordings of the opera. Although some of these may be live, broadcast recordings are not included. An exhaustive list of all known recordings of Boris Godunov may be found here. Another comprehensive list may be found here.

Audio Recordings

Year Conductor Orchestra Boris Version
1948 Golovanov Bolshoy Theater Orchestra Reyzen RK 1908
1949 Golovanov Bolshoy Theater Orchestra Pirogov RK 1908
1952 Dobrowen Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Christoff RK 1908
1954 Baranovich Belgrade National Opera Orchestra Changalovich RK 1908
1962 Cluytens Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire Christoff RK 1908
1962 Melik-Pashayev Bolshoy Theater Orchestra Petrov RK 1908
1963 Melik-Pashayev Bolshoy Theater Orchestra London RK 1908
1970 Karajan Wiener Philharmoniker Ghiaurov RK 1908
1976 Semkov Polish Radio Orchestra Talvela Revised 1872
1983 Fedoseyev USSR State Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra Vedernikov Revised 1872
1985 Ermler Bolshoy Theater Orchestra Nesterenko RK 1908
1986 Kitayenko Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra Haugland Revised 1872
1986 Tchakarov Sofia Festival Orchestra Ghiaurov Revised 1872
1987 Rostropovich National Symphony Orchestra Raimondi Revised 1872
1993 Abbado Berliner Philharmoniker Kotscherga Revised 1872
1997 Gergiev Kirov Opera & Orchestra Putilin Original 1869
1997 Gergiev Kirov Opera & Orchestra Vaneyev Revised 1872

Video Recordings

Year Conductor Orchestra Boris Version
1956 Nebolsin Bolshoy Theater Orchestra Pirogov RK 1908
1978 Khaykin Bolshoy Theater Orchestra Nesterenko RK 1908
1987 Lazarev Bolshoy Theater Orchestra Nesterenko RK 1908
1990 Gergiev Kirov Opera and Orchestra Lloyd Revised 1872
2004 Weigle Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona Salminen Original 1869

Historical Notes

  • Fyodor Shalyapin (Chaliapin) made several recordings of individual arias that are of important historical interest. These date from 1911, 1922, 1923, 1928, and 1931, and were made with various conductors and orchestras.
  • The first full length recording of the opera is the 1939 performance by Panizza and the New York Metropolitan Opera, with Pinza as Boris, sung in Italian.
  • The first full length recording in Russian is that of 1948 by Golovanov and the Bolshoy, with Reyzen.
  • Performances using the Rathaus orchestration were captured in 1953 with Stiedry and London, 1954 with Stiedry and Siepi, and in 1956 with Mitropoulos and London. All are performed with the New York Metropolitan Opera and are sung in English.
  • Mussorgsky's orchestration was first recorded in a performance in 1957 under Jochum and the Symphonieorchester des Bayrischen Rundfunks, with Hotter as Boris, sung in German.
  • The 1869 Original Version of Act II was first recorded, in the Shostakovich orchestration, by Boris Shtokolov under Yeltsin and the Kirov Theater Orchestra in 1962.

Related works



  • Abraham, G., Essays on Russian and East European Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985
  • Calvocoressi, M.D., Abraham, G., Mussorgsky, 'Master Musicians' Series, London: J.M.Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1974
  • Calvocoressi, M.D., Modest Mussorgsky: His Life and Works, London: Rockliff, 1956
  • Rimsky-Korsakov, N., Chronicle of My Musical Life, translated by J. A. Joffe, New York: Knopf, 1923
  • Shirinyan, R. (author), Kondakhchan, K. (editor), M. P. Musorgsky, Moscow: Music (publisher), 1989 [Ширинян, Р., Кондахчан, К., М. П. Мусоргский, Москва: Музыка, 1989]
  • Volkov, Solomon, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich, translated by Bouis, Antonina W., New York: Harper & Row, 1979

External links



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