Crowd, mob, and nation in Boris Godunov

What did musorgsky think, and does it matter?

When Musorgsky revised his opera Boris Godunov in 1871-1872 as a condition for its eventual performance in 1874, he made many changes that went far beyond what the Imperial Theaters demanded of him. Among these changes was the composition of a crowd scene outside Moscow, in which the rebellious populace hails the Pretender, to replace a crowd scene at Red Square in which a submissive, hungry crowd beg Boris for bread. The original scene came, like the rest of the libretto, directly from Pushkin's eponymous play. The new scene reflected a new view of the historical events, and Musorgsky wrote his own text for it. The two scenes are ideologically at odds, particularly as regards their view of the Russian nation in relation to the Russian people. Moreover, the two scenes share the episode of the Holy Fool and the thieving boys, which Musorgsky transferred from the one score to the other. Obviously, Musorgsky regarded them as incompatible within a single production and thought he had made conflating them impossible. And yet, at the Bolshoy Theater in 1939, the two scenes were indeed played that way, inconsistencies and redundancies be damned. The Bolshoy production (which became widely known through recordings and film) might be written off, the way we tend to write off the art of the Stalinist era, as a politically motivated anomaly. But other productions, including one in San Francisco in 1992, and one that was mounted in 2010 at the Teatro Regio in Torino, have included both scenes without any such evident motivation, possibly because the Bolshoy production is now regarded by some as canonical. Is the historiographical contradiction involving our theme of Opera and Nation to be regarded as a blemish? If not, what considerations can be seen to outweigh it? Can Musorgsky's political ideas be deduced from the work in which we assume they are embodied? And if they can be, should they be regarded as an aspect of the work that performers need respect?

Journal Studia Musicologica
Year 2011
Volume 52
Issue 1-4
Pages 123-142

Taruskin, Richard (2011) Crowd, mob, and nation in Boris Godunov: What did musorgsky think, and does it matter?. In: Studia Musicologica: Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Vol. 52, No. 1-4, pp. 123-142. Available at


View it in the Music Periodicals Database


Drag and drop files here

or click to select them
Uploaded just now