The Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov: Opera’s Biggest Spectacle?

Boris Godunov
Tsar Boris Godunov

From its origins in medieval and Renaissance courtly entertainment, opera has always been partly rooted in spectacle. Nineteenth century French grand opera used large casts, expanded orchestras, grandiose scenery, consumes and special effects, and ballet to bring to life epic heroic tales based on historical subjects. (Meyerbeer’s five-act Les Huguenots from 1836 is an example.) A sense of theatricality and spectacle is at the heart of the Triumphant March from Verdi’s Aida, set in ancient Egypt.

History (this time recent) became mythologized in a similar way in John Adams’ 1987 opera, Nixon in China. Early in the first act, the landing of Nixon’s Air Force 1, dubbed the Spirit of ’76, and the appearance of the president and his entourage, take on Wagnerian weight. In Adams’ music, we can hear the plane emerge as a dot on the horizon and approach with an awe-inspiring crescendo, culminating in a heroic landing. The aircraft’s throbbing engines become as poetically powerful and significant as Lohengrin‘s swan. Spectacle takes center stage, literally, as the nose of the Spirit of ’76 suddenly engulfs the entire set.

But when it comes to the ultimate musical and dramatic fireworks, I can’t think of any moment in opera that tops the Coronation Scene from Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, composed between 1868 and 1873. (If you can find an opera scene that pulls out more stops, please share it in the thread below.) As with the arrival of the Spirit of ’76 in Nixon in China, the Coronation Scene occurs early in Boris Godunov (the second scene of the Prologue). Both dramatic events are heightened by a powerful sense of anticipation. A crowd waits for Tsar Boris to appear from Moscow’s Cathedral of the Dormition and then sings his praises.

Suddenly, amid this celebratory spectacle, we’re drawn into the intimacy of Boris’ monologue. We enter the mind of the character and catch a glimpse of the darkness and tragedy ahead. A similar moment of contemplation occurs in Nixon in China as Nixon daydreams about public perception and his place in history. 

  • Find a recording of Boris Godunov at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Here is the complete synopsis of the opera.
  • Valery Gergiev’s performance of the Coronation Scene.
  • a 1947 historic performance from Moscow’s Bolshoy Theater

Two Nights on Bald Mountain

From Disney's Fantasia
A scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which popularized Night on Bald Mountain with a version by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain was inspired by an old Russian legend which was turned into a ghoulish short story by Nikolai Gogol. The story centers around witches, black magic, and events which you might expect in the most grisly horror movie.

Here is Mussorgsky’s description of the musical program for Night on Bald Mountain:

Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog. Glorification of the Black God, The Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath, interrupted at its height by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the Spirits of Darkness. Daybreak.

The popular version of Night on Bald Mountain we hear performed most often was as much the work of fellow Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as Mussorgsky. Following Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked the score, which he found promising but unwieldily in its original form. He made a similar revision of Mussorgsky’s sprawling opera, Boris Godunov.

Listen to Mussorgsky’s original score, and you’ll hear the extent to which the two “versions” are actually completely different pieces. Mussorgsky’s score may lack the structural refinement and polished orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but it rumbles with a uniquely terrifying, hellish energy.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most influential orchestrators of the nineteenth century. As you listen to the clip below, notice the ways instrumental voices are combined and the resulting sense of color. For example, listen to the unique texture created by the combination of string tremolos and pizzicatos around the 0:35 mark, and the following splashes of color in the cymbals. Notice the personas which emerge from the clarinet and flute solos in the “daybreak” music at the end. Throughout this passage (beginning at 7:40), the repeated, almost hypnotic bass pizzicatos suggest a distant, ominous funeral procession, subtly reminding us of the terror of the night. Listen to the shimmering purity of the final chord, as it alternates between strings and woodwinds, evoking a colorful sonic kaleidoscope.

Russian nationalism is central to both versions. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were both part of a circle of five composers (“The Russian Five”) who were dedicated to the promotion of a distinctly Russian style of music. Regarding the composition of Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky wrote in a letter,

The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St. John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me … I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.

What qualities make this music, or any music, sound uniquely Russian? Folk music is a starting point. While there may be few overt folk references in Night on Bald Mountain, there are occasional ornamental grace notes which suggest eastern folk influence (for example, 1:56 in the woodwinds). This type of ornament pops up throughout Russian music, even in the flute line at the end of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. 

Another detail which feels distinctly “Russian” is the repetition of a small melodic fragment while the music around it changes (Listen at 2:47 and notice the ascending brass scale which follows, something we hear in Tchaikovsky).

Here is the Rimsky-Korsakov version, performed by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein:

Now it’s your turn…

Now that you’ve heard both versions, which one do you prefer and why? If you can’t decide between the two, what aspects of the music do you find most interesting? Share your thoughts in the comment thread below.