The final set of programme notes for our Russian masterworks concert from our bass player Pui Wah Poon.
Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Khovanshchina – Prelude: “Dawn over the Moscow River”
(orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov)
Mussorgsky was one of five prominent 19th century Russian composers known as the “Mighty Handful” or “The Five”.
Initially taught by his mother, he was a child prodigy, making his debut as a pianist aged just nine. Expected to pursue a military career, he was moved to St Petersburg where, as a young lieutenant, he met the composer Mily Balakirev, who would later bring together “The Five”. In 1858, just months after starting lessons with Balakirev, Mussorgsky resigned his commission to devote himself to music.
1874 marked a high point in Mussorgsky’s life. It was the year that his opera Boris Godunov was staged in St Petersburg and Pictures at an Exhibition was composed. Following the success of Boris, he pressed on with the composition of another historical opera, Khovanshchina. However, financial troubles, epileptic seizures and alcoholism took their toll and he died a week after his 42nd birthday without finishing the work.
Khovanshchina (“The Khovansky Affair”) is one of five operas Mussorgsky started but never finished. In it, Prince Ivan Khovansky leads a hopeless rebellion against the modern reforms imposed by Tsar Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century. After Mussorgsky’s death, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, another of “The Five”, interrupted work on his own compositions in order to sift through the mass of disorderly manuscripts and complete his friend’s music so it could be performed. His version of Khovanshchina was premiered in St Petersburg in 1886. The opera was revised in 1959 by Dmitri Shostakovich but, although it is Shostakovich’s version of the opera that is usually performed, tonight we perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the Prelude that introduces the opera.
The music evokes the gradual coming of daylight in a sequence of five variants on a folk tune. These variants correspond to the way a song is modified from one verse to the next in the traditional singing style of Russian folk music. The melody is expressively extended and decorated, with the rumbling and sinister tolling of the timpani hinting at the historical tragedy about to unfold.