In 1872 Mussorgsky began his work on the monumental musical drama Khovanshchina. The script of the opera is based on the plot of Prince Khovanski against the young Tsar Peter. The composer wanted to show the dramatic times of Russia, torn by contradictions, the fate of the country, which was at a crossroads (let it be reminded that Khovanshchina was conceived as the second part of a grand trilogy, the first part of which was Boris Godunov, and the third was to be Pugachev’s Revolt). Since he had no literary source, Mussorgsky wrote his own libretto, drawing material from authentic 17th -century documents and historical research. Work on the opera continued for a full eight years, but it was never completed – after Mussorgsky’s death in 1881, what remained was a nearly finished clavier and a barely conceived score. Khovanshchina’was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, who, basically, created his own version of the work and was much criticized for changing its basic concept. His revision and orchestration came to light in 1883, and the opera premiered on 9 February 1886 in St. Petersburg.
Khovanshchina gained bigger popularity after 1911. In 1913, at Sergei Diaghilev’s behest, Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement, but as Fyodor Chaliapin refused to sing the part of Dosiphaeus in any orchestration other than Rimsky-Korsakov’s, Diaghilev’s company decided to use a medley of orchestrations, which proved unsuccessful. The Stravinsky and Ravel orchestrations have been forgotten, except for the finale done by Stravinsky, which is sometimes used. In 1958 Dmitri Shostakovich was commissioned to rework and re-orchestrate the opera for a movie version, which was released the following year. It is this orchestration of Khovanshchina that is most frequently performed today.
The short prelude to the opera, which Mussorgsky called “Dawn on the Moskva River“, is not only a musical landscape of astonishing beauty, but also a symbolic picture of the awakening of the country at the will of the young Peter, a hope for Russia’s wonderful future morning. The composer wrote this prelude in 1873-1874. In one of his letters of July 23, 1873, he reported that the prelude to the opera was already completed but not recorded. On the page of the piano of the opera opposite “The Dawn” the date of September 2, 1874 is written.
The prelude begins with a long introductory melody in violas. It is picked up by a solo flute which soars upwards, where in turn a sustaining tremolo is introduced in the violins. Against this backdrop, the second violins and oboe sing a broad folk-style melody, after which the clarinet solo sounds like the cry of a cock heralding the dawn. It is answered by the French horns. The dialogue between the instruments continues further, against a gradually thickening orchestral background. Now the oboe’s song is accompanied by continuously flowing passages of violins that seem to be a stream of sunlight. A further theme, similar in character to the first, appears in a denser sonority – clarinets, bassoons and cellos. French horns, harps, timpani and a pizzicato here and there in the double basses imitate bell ringing, which becomes more and more extended, though within the pianissimo. The song motifs gradually shrink and fade away. Only the lightest tremolo of the violins and the individual sounds of flute and harp soaring upwards complete this laconic prelude.