Work: Khovanshchina: Dawn on the Moscow River
About This Work
While not utterly incomprehensible, the task of explaining the compositional history of Khovanshchina is blessedly beyond the scope of this article. Left unfinished at his death as a mass of disorderly manuscripts, Khovanshchina resists comprehension
either as a drama, an opera or even a piece of music. It also resisted successful completion: after Mussorgsky's death in 1882, his friend Rimsky-Korsakov tried to put his manuscripts in order and to create a performing edition of Khovanshchina. Part of this task, the least part of this impossible task, was the opera's orchestration, including its prelude, called Dawn on the Muscovy River.
The curtain rises during the prelude to reveal the pre-dawn city of Moscow at the end of the seventeenth century, the period which marks the rise of Peter the Great. Mussorgsky had left only indications as to how the scoring was to be handled, and Rimsky understandably chose to orchestrate it in his own manner. One might not think that this would make an enormous difference in the essence of the music. But, to a surprising extent, Dawn on the Muscovy River is orchestral in its essence, and Rimsky's orchestration, with its bright woodwinds and light basses, with its tempo rubato and its languorous tempo, makes the work seem more like a pastoral than a city scene, more like a light elegy than the prelude to a historical tragedy which would end with the deaths of many of the characters and the mass self-immolation of most of the rest.
Although Rimsky did succeed in creating a performing edition of the Khovanshchina and of the prelude, much of Mussorgsky's essence was lost in the recomposition.
-- James Leonard
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