Time and Truth


Leslie Kearney


Between Musorgsky and the vast majority of the Western musical world lies a language barrier, in the most literal sense of the term. This constitutes a critical barrier indeed for a composer for whom language is if not the only, then the most important agent of his composition. (1) Musorgsky himself tells us that

Art is a means of communicating with people, not an end in itself.... [T]he mission of the art of music [is] the reproduction in musical sounds of not only the nuances of the emotions but, even more important, the nuances of human speech; (2)

and further that

music should be an artistic reproduction of human speech in all its barely perceptible nuances, that is, the sounds of human speech, as outward manifestations of thought and feeling, should, without exaggeration or forcing, become music that is true, precise, but artistic, highly artistic.... (3)

This is Musorgsky's artistic rationale; but what does this really mean? The truth and precision of Musorgsky's music is generally sought in details of text-setting, including an examination of the inflectional patterns and contour of the Russian language, and Musorgsky's careful attention to the inherent pitch-patterns of Russian speech. (4) This approach to Musorgsky's vocal music focuses on melodic intervals and contour, and the coincidence of the accent in the spoken phrase with the accent in the music. Such an approach is simultaneously overly detailed and wide of the mark. For Musorgsky's music, the phenomenon of relatively natural declamation must be taken as a given, a starting point, not an ultimate answer. While it is an important element in his music, it leaves too much unexplained and unaccounted for, especially in the context of a large scale, integrated work. While Musorgsky undoubtedly paid scrupulous attention to surface details of text setting, his prose suggests that he strove in his music to reveal deeper and more abstract truths about the Russian language and the people who speak it. Recall his goal to create music which represents human speech in all of its barely perceptible nuances, as outward manifestation of thought and feeling. Rather than simply creating approximations of the general sounds of speech, Musorgsky, with the thorough knowledge of Russian grammar and linguistic history at his command, (5) attempted to demonstrate musically the world view inherent in the Russian language. One of the most intriguing aspects of this world view, evident in both the language and Musorgsky's music, is the relationship between time and truth.


The Russian Concept of Time and Reality

Musorgsky may be viewed as an early proponent of the Whorfian view, since supported by Lakoff and others, that one thinks as one speaks. (6) In a letter to the linguist Vladimir Vasilievich Nikolsky, Musorgsky expresses the opinion that:

                With the use of Russian speech, Russian thought will also correct itself. (7)

Whorf and Musorgsky would agree that an artist's linguistic orientation affects his product. Indeed, regardless of his medium, an artist cannot escape the influence of the world view imposed upon him by his language in his creative work, unless (like Messiaen for example) he self-consciously and deliberately tries to thwart those perceptions. Inasmuch as Musorgsky explicitly strove to generate his art from language, certain features of his native tongue suggest a natural starting point, a threshold issue for an understanding of his music.

Throughout its development, Russian has evidenced a discomfort with that which is not real, manifest in an inability to express the abstract. Something that does not exist must be expressed in Russian not in the nominative, but in the genitive, as if that which does not exist cannot even be named, leading to seemingly nonsensical statements like, "Is he home? No, none of him is." Even a remark as innocuous as "He was English," occasions grammatical oddities. If the word "English" is rendered in the nominative, it implies that the gentleman was not only English but also dead, and therefore his state is not subject to change. If he is still alive and could have changed his nationality, the word "English" must be rendered in the instrumental case. The instrumental which, as its name suggests, usually expresses the means (instrumentality) by which an act is accomplished, makes little apparent sense here. Once again, the grammar reveals a reluctance to name that which may not exist. (8)

The rather convoluted structures that Russian employs to deal with the non-existent find an interesting counterpart in the way the language handles that which does exist. That which is, the Russian language implies, is self-evident and therefore needs no expression. For this reason Russian, as early as the eleventh century, eliminated the present tense of the verb "to be" as an unnecessary redundancy. (9) This vacuum, this absence of the verb functions in the language as a present indicative tense. (10) Equally tangible as what exists is what one has; thus, although Russian retains the verb imet ' [to have] in all tenses, it is rarely used in favor of the verbless construction u menia [by me, similar to the French "chez moi," but with broader meaning applicable to all possession]. (11)

Nor does this vacuum apply only to verbs. Linguist Johanna Nichols has concluded that the ideal sentence construction in Russian involves an unexpressed subject. She comes to the intriguing conclusion that non-expression of the subject indicates empathy, while overt expression of the subject implies detachment of the speaker from the subject. (12) The non-expression of subject and verbs of existence reveals an interesting characteristic of Russian mentality, the internalization by the speaker of that which is real. Things that exist in Russian literally "go without saying," so completely are they accepted, assimilated and understood.

The importance of tangibility or reality in its implications for Russian grammar finds its most crucial expression in verbs. (13) Verb structure in Russian reveals an interesting relationship between reality and time, beginning with the name for the present tense - nastoiashchee vremia. The root of the word nastoiashchii is stoiat', "to stand"; thus the present is, logically, the time that is standing before you. More interesting, however, is what this word has come to mean in Russian - "actual, genuine, real." Thus Russian grammar states in the most explicit terms that only the present is real. Moreover this designation of the present as "real time" is ancient, whereas the term budushchee vremia for the future, for example, came into the language only in the eighteenth century, shockingly late. (14)

In light of the idea that only the present is real, the Russian subjunctive - that which expresses the unreal - is not surprisingly primitive, even inadequate. The subjunctive construction is incapable of expressing any time or temporal distinctions whatsoever, consisting of an indiscriminate past verb form (which however has no past tense meaning) and a conditional particle (by), a structure that has existed since the thirteenth century. (15) Past tense verbs are not conjugated but agree with the subject's gender. Thus they function grammatically more as adjectives than verbs, giving both the past and the subjunctive in Russian the tone of description rather than activity.

Finally Russian has no tense of relative time. The aorist, pluperfect, future-perfect and present tense of the perfective aspect have all disappeared. Any finer temporal distinctions besides past, present and future are aspectual. Aspect in Russian, which characterizes the mode of the action, is more fundamental than temporal relations with respect to some fixed point. (16) The "time" of Russian verbs expresses an internal, inherent property of the action itself, unlike tense, which locates an action in relation to the "here and now" of the speaker. In Peshkovsky's well-known definition, "the category of aspect denotes how the process described by the stem of the verb develops [lit. flows (protekaet)] in time or is distributed in time." (17) In other words, Russian verbs do not generally express actions in a relationship to measurable time, but the quality of the action itself; they are not goal-oriented, but process-oriented.

While our present study does not require exhaustive inquiry into every detail of Russian aspect in all its complexity, an understanding of even the rudiments of aspect is enlightening. Like the imparfait in French, the imperfective in Russian describes an action that is incomplete, ongoing or repetitive. While the imparfait is exclusively a past tense, however, the imperfective exists in past, present and future; furthermore, it offers the only possibility for a present tense in Russian, since the perfective aspect exists only in past and future. Thus, while French recognizes aspect in the past, aspect presents a non-issue in the present. On the contrary, the Russian present is intimately bound up with and inextricable from the concept of incomplete, ongoing or repetitive action, as expressed by the imperfective aspect. Furthermore, while the present is that which "stands before you," its end points are not visible, since prefixes which indicate initiation or completion of action have the effect of perfectivizing verbs, thereby thrusting them into the past or future, giving the present in Russian the flavor of infinity.

In effect, the description of process has evolved as the most complex, precise and informative feature of the Russian language, in the form of verbal aspect. Hockett provides perhaps the most elegant definition: "Aspects have to do, not with the location of an event in time, but with its temporal distribution and contour," (18) a phrase which, incidentally, could describe music. As a corollary to this statement, aspect has to do not with an action's endpoints, but with the process which transpires between these endpoints. Extrapolating from this definition of aspect, Maslov makes the following intriguing evaluation:

If we take into account that linguistic meanings do not give a mechanical copy of reality but its reflection, idiosyncratically refracted by human consciousness, then... we can propose the following formulation: aspectual meanings reflect some "assessment" or qualitative description by the speaker of the action denoted by the verb, from the point of view of the development and distribution of this action in time, but without reference to the moment of speech. (19)

Maslov's use of the terms "assessment" and "qualitative description" correctly implies judgment. In literally each sentence, a Russian speaker's language forces him to make judgments about the degree of completeness, the "perfection" of every action he describes. I suggest that both the structure of the language itself, as well as Russian history and literature, reveal an overwhelming preference for the present imperfected action, which simultaneously holds out more promise than a disappointing past and offers more tangibility, more "realness" than an uncertain future. The Russian language consistently places that which is over that which could be or that which is not, the real, the present, the tangible over the unreal, the remote or the hypothetical.

Quite apart from its implications for music, history has demonstrated the implications for daily Russian life of the mentality revealed by the language. From its earliest days Russia has admired and often cried out for doers of deeds, not dreamers of dreams. (20) At the same time Russia has consistently evidenced a lack of respect, even disdain, for the past, in its willingness to manipulate, revise and even fictionalize history. (21) Westerners tend to perceive this phenomenon as a reckless disregard for truth, especially in the context of, for example, the propaganda disseminated by the now defunct Communist Party. The point, it must be emphasized, is not a question of honesty. Rather, revisionist history can only exist among a people for whom the past is not real and thus irrelevant or, perhaps more accurately, a people for whom the past is subsumed in the present. Remember, the disjunction of past and present found in 1984 is, after all, the creation of a Westerner. The Russian perception of the relationship between past and present resembles rather descriptions of an infinity in which everything that was ever available is always available, everything is happening all the time, everything that has ever existed exists now. Thus the past is eternally accessible. Revising an unsatisfactory past to accommodate or further the new beliefs of the present could in fact represent an act of great integrity in the Russian scheme of things, the sacrifice of the unreal in the service of the real. Expressed another way, this process epitomizes what may be seen as the Russian dream - to move beyond and forget that which has no further possibility of development, thereby channeling energy into that which still offers potential. This linguistic emphasis on that which is developing or unfolding, on action in process, is translated in explicit terms both into Pushkin's drama and Musorgsky's music.

Admittedly the Russian fascination with process remains in the realm of the ideal. The degree to which the language, as well as literature, philosophy and history, emphasize process is the measure of the great need of a society which, from its inception, has been beset with paralysis. This tension between the longing for movement and the frustration of stasis forms the focus of a great deal of Russian effort in many disciplines. Russian even has a single word which expresses this tension, this mutual exclusivity. The word - byt - bears an obvious and significant relationship to the verb byt', to be, the verb expressing fundamental existence. Byt, which has been called "nearly untranslatable," suggests "mores," "convention," "the established way of life," "the daily grind," "middle class values" (somewhat akin to Biedermeier in German), and so forth. (22) The best insight into this word and the concept it conveys comes from Jakobson's exquisite essay on Maiakovskii's suicide, "On a Generation that Squandered its Poets."

Opposed to this creative urge toward a transformed future is the stabilizing force of an immutable present, overlaid, as this present is, by a stagnating slime, which stifles life in its tight hard mold. The Russian name for this element is byt. It is curious that this word and its derivatives should have such a prominent place in the Russian language,... while West European languages have no word that corresponds to it.... The real antithesis of byt is a slippage of social norms that is immediately sensed by those involved in social life. In Russia this sense of an unstable foundation has been present for a very long time, and not just as a historical generalization, but as a direct experience. We recall that in the early nineteenth century, during the time of Chaadaev, there was the sense of a "dead and stagnant life," but at the same time a feeling of instability and uncertainty: "Everything is slipping away, everything is passing," wrote Chaadaev. In our own homes we are as it were in temporary quarters. In our family life we seem foreigners. In our cities we look like nomads." ... Only in the poem "About That" is [Maiakovskii's] desperate struggle with byt fully laid bare.... [T]he poet hammers his verbal attack directly into that moribund byt which he despises. And byt reacts by executing the rebel.... Elsewhere in Maiakovskii this phenomenon is, as we have said, personified - not however as a living person, but rather, in the poet's own phrase, 'as an animated tendency in things.' (23)

Jakobson perceives throughout Russian history this anomaly of motion that fails to progress, enough animation to set the world off-balance yet not enough to effect productive change. The present, the reality of being which surrounds one and offers the only hope for development, also entraps and enmires, weighs down, and ultimately executes the rebel "with all rifles and batteries, from every Mauser and Browning." (Maiakovskii, Pro eto "About That"). This fundamental struggle between process and paralysis emerges in every aspect of Russian endeavor, including art, political thought, and the bases for this study, music and literature. Its roots lie in the language itself and thus in the very essence of the Russian people.


Time and Truth

In light of these insights into the world view revealed by the Russian language, several features of the Boris Godunov tale take on new significance, specifically the nature of the tale itself and the fact that both Pushkin and Musorgsky tend to define every character in the drama by two issues - their relationship to time and their relationship to truth.

For a culture that is fascinated by ongoing process and does not shrink from making up history as it goes along, Boris represents nothing less than the perfect hero. His circumstances, at least as they came to be popularly interpreted, admit of no conceivable resolution, even an unsatisfactory or untidy one. Boris, who reigned as Tsar of Russia from 1598-1605, supposedly attained the throne by ordering the murder of the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, Grand Prince Dmitry, in 1591. When the False Dmitry, the Pretender, approaches Moscow some fourteen years later, when the Prince would have been twenty-three, he creates the second prong of Boris' "dilemma." Either Boris' associates carried out his orders and killed little Dmitry - in which case Boris is a murderer - or they betrayed him and allowed the child to live to maturity - in which case Boris will now lose his throne and power. (24)

Popular wisdom which has, for centuries, presumed to view Boris as a murderer is based on a mythologized type of history, entirely typical of Russian thought and by no means limited to Boris' tale. Lotman, in his account of the memoirs of Dmitry Irinarkhovich Zavalishin, a man who "lied all his life," puts his finger on the problem created by this type of fictionalized history:

Zavalishin's memoirs raise complex questions for the researcher, because they offer a great many facts, some unavailable in any other source. But every time he recalls an actual situation, Zavalishin, like a director dissatisfied with a piece of film, demands a "retake" and creates a new version of the plot. It is as though he were avenging himself on life. We can discover from his memoirs what conflicts took place, but not how they were resolved. (25)

This, in a word, epitomizes the essence of Boris Godunov, a tale of conflict, but not of resolution. It is not coincidental that Boris' most influential biographer, Nikolai Karamzin, asked "What is a poet? a skillful liar...." (26) Karamzin's exhuastively researched historical account, on which both Pushkin and Musorgsky drew extensively, (27) tends to view Boris as a psychological type in an era when psychology could barely be characterized as embryonic. In 1806 he writes, regarding his work on the History, that he has begun "freely [to] transmit the spirit." (28) His account of Ivan the Terrible includes the observation, now shocking in its naiveté: "But the chroniclers could not penetrate into that soul's interior, they could not see in it a conscience struggling with turbulent passions," (29) implying, of course, that Karamzin could so penetrate. Emerson acutely observes, "he combines the psychological perspective of his own time with the events and perspectives of the chronicles, in order to narrate what a chronicler might have seen if he had asked nineteenth-century questions." (30)

Karamzin's anachronistic method in essence puts into practice the artistic device Pushkin employs in his dramatization of Boris' tale, the conscious pulling of the event into the present moment. The circumstances surrounding Boris have about them the seductive charm of unsolved mystery. The obfuscation of the event at the time laid the foundation for seemingly eternal grounds for questioning what really happened. Platonov captures the essence of Boris' fate when he sums up the calumnies against him with the simple statement, "Those who hated Boris... wished to think that way." (31) Boris' attraction to the creative imagination lies precisely in that one does not know what to think about him or, alternatively, one may think anything about him. It is not accidental that, in both Pushkin's and Musorgsky's portrayals, Boris himself does not know what to think, whether to view himself as criminal or persecuted victim, as in both opera and drama he spends a great deal of time endeavoring to find out from Shuisky of what, precisely, he is guilty.

The return of Dmitry some fourteen years after his "death," to avenge himself on his own "murderer," makes an already good mystery too good to be true. The capability of the victim to reappear and confront the criminal with his crime raises the timeless quality of the unsolved mystery to a new level. Pushkin twice refers to the "resurrected name of Dmitry," making explicit the most critical aspect of Boris' tale, its power to rise from the dead, its adamant refusal to be laid to rest, in Russian terms, its eternal present-ness and thus its eternal inescapable reality.

In light of the nature of Boris' tale, it is not surprising that Russian artists find in it fertile ground for an exploration of time. Emerson observes how Pushkin's Boris Godunov represents a peculiar sort of non-linear time, presented even on the printed page as an uninterrupted flow, not unlike Musorgsky's non-use of key signatures and bar lines that appear to have been added post facto, after the pitches were already in place, a reluctant division of time (32):

Scenes are only rarely labeled with a place or time. Events in one scene do not seem to depend directly on events in earlier scenes; few references are made to "earlier" or "later." What links events is not confrontation or causality but rumor.... Time is indeed concentrated, but the action of the play as a whole becomes not tighter but more diffuse. Temporal discontinuity brings in its wake a certain kind of space. The setting changes with each scene, and the scenes are so short that sustained action, or interaction, cannot develop. We merely glimpse the present as it appears to its participants.... The perfect container for these disjointed times and spaces is indeed samozvanstvo [pretendership]. (33)

The timelessness Pushkin writes into the fabric of the play he wished to translate into concrete terms in the production of the play. He thought Boris Godunov could be staged most effectively on the Elizabethan tripartite stage, which permits simultaneous action at the front and rear, without the divisions caused by acts, scenes or curtain, making possible an uninterrupted flow of events before the spectator's eyes. (34) In other words, in his dramatic treatment of Boris he seeks precisely the same non-sectionalization for which Musorgsky strives in his music.

While Emerson has noted the congruence between time and space in Pushkin's play, an even more critical congruence exists between time and truth. Pushkin's Boris is a study of deceit, or more precisely, the distortion of truth made possible by the distortion of time, which acts as a testimony to the vulnerability of truth in a culture which does not recognize its past. Like every image, truth is in any case a mobile concept for Pushkin. His ongoing redefinition of poetic image is a thread which runs throughout criticism of his works. Regarding the lyric poetry, Mirsky remarks, "Every image is contested, not a single image can be 'interpreted' conclusively from one standpoint; each interpretation opens a door to another, and not a single one can be accepted as definite.... Ambiguity, or more precisely, multiplicity of meanings, is a basic component of Pushkin's poetic works." (35) Jakobson endorses Dobrolyubov's realization that Pushkin did not have a unifying sense in images. Critics interpret his multiplicity of meanings as a wealth of content or a lack of content, uncomfortable with what Jakobson calls "oscillating characterization," or the simple fact that, in Pushkin's world, different things are true at different times. Jakobson sees that

In his famous invectives against Onegin Pisarev maintains that Belinsky loved a Pushkin whom he himself had created, but it may be said with equal justification that Pisarev hated a Pushkin of his own fabrication, and the same may be repeated mutatis mutandi about every attempt at a unliateral interpretation of Pushkin's work. (36)

This multiplicity of meaning, the essence of Pushkin's literary style, once again provides the counterpart to Musorgsky's musical language, which points in several directions at once.

Pushkin defines every player in Boris Godunov by two characteristics, his time frame and his version of truth. Pimen represents the continuum of time inherent in remembrance, linked to his preservation in writing of the past, of truth. Pimen is not only a chronicler, but also a monk - an individual for whom every day is like every other, each devoted to the commemoration through re-enactment of one moment in history, the Last Supper. This historical moment itself acts as a constant reminder of death and resurrection - like Dmitry's death, an eternally present moment. Pushkin, employing a device which Musorgsky borrows, frames each of Pimen's remarks with the phrase "I remember," stressing his ability, unique in the world of Godunov, to preserve the truth through memory.

In contrast, Shuisky embodies some variable kind of truth, and lives in the time of forgetfulness. Early in the proceedings he tells us, with remarkable candor, the state of truth in his world.

Net, ne pomniu nichego...

Teper' ne vremia pomnit',

Sovetuiu poroi i zabyvat'.


[No, I remember nothing...

Now is not the time to remember,

I advise you even to forget.] (13)

As Shuisky admits, he lives in a string of eternal "nows," a time of forgetfulness, in which the past is constantly redefined to accommodate the needs of now. It is very significant that the most uncomplicated, harmonically straightforward - ergo non-productive - music in the opera is attached to Shuisky.

The seeming irony lies in the fact that Suisky, the arch-deceiver, is also the guardian of truth in Boris' world - not "real" truth but the only relevant truth, namely, what actually happened to Dmitry. Placing this information in Shuisky's hands only goes one step further toward rendering the dilemma insoluble, for he never tells. He merely orchestrates Boris' anxiety, playing up the approach of the living Dmitry or the murder of the dead Dmitry, whatever will have the most effect at any given moment. In an odd way, however, Shuisky really is the guardian of the truth, the more abstract Russian truth, that any conclusion is ultimately meaningless. Boris is doomed in any case, as are the Russian people (a fact Musorgsky makes much more explicit than does Pushkin). Any conclusion will represent not resolution, but only an unsatisfactory halt to a process in which alone resides meaning.

Pushkin employs time imagery most forcefully in the encounter between Marina and the Pretender at the fountain. Literally every one of their first several interchanges refers in vivid terms to time and specifically to the fact that their time is out of joint. After waiting all day to talk to Marina, Dmitry's "hour has come" [chas nastal], yet he does not remember what to say. His very biological time has ceased to function - vsia krov' vo mne ostanovilas' [the blood in me stands still]. The hours which have dragged for Dmitry have flown by for Marina, making her impatient with his love-sick maunderings. He longs for even one short hour [edinyi chas] of happiness with Marina, to which she tersely responds ne vremia [no time], for

chas ot chasu opasnost' i trudy

Stanoviat'sia opasnei i trudnee.


[Hour by hour danger and difficulty

Become more dangerous and more difficult.]

The Pretender and Marina do have something in common, however. As Dmitry's blood stands still, the wildly passionate Marina is "a marble nymph: eyes, lips without life" [mramornaia nimfa: glaza, usta bez zhizni]. Both of them, in other words, are not quite human, but rather frozen creatures in whom life processes do not take place.

The temporal disjunction between them reflects the difference in their personal truth. While the Pretender is bent on self-revelation, Marina is equally determined that he is Dmitry "and can be nothing else." [Dimitrii ty i byt' inym ne mozhesh']. Significantly, even after the Pretender has confessed to his pretense, Pushkin recreates a basis for doubt, as Marina actually talks Dmitry back into equivocation about his identity. He finally reaches the crux of the matter:

[Nikto] ne dumaet o pravde slov moikh.

Dimitrii ia, il' net - chto im za delo?

No ia predlog razgovor i voiny.

Im eto lish' i nuzhno.


[No one thinks about the truth of my words.

If I am Dmitry or not--what is it to them?

But I am a pretext for dispute and war.

That is all they need.]

Once again, real "truth" lies not in objective fact, but in process, in the ability to stir things up. Strangely, this speech brings Marina and Dmitry together.

S toboi, kniaz', ona [rech'] menia mirit.

Bezumnyi tvoi poryu a zabyvaiu

I vizhu vnov' Dimitriia: no - slushai:

Pora, pora!


[Your speech reconciles me to you, prince.

I forget your mad outburst

and see Dmitry once more. But - listen:

Now is the time!]

Like Shuisky, Marina has reshaped truth by conveniently forgetting disadvantageous information. She and the Pretender now share the same truth. The Pretender's identity remains a question but their course of action has been clarified. With unity of thought comes unity of time. The temporal disjunction which pervades the beginning of the act converges on "now."

While Musorgsky does not preserve most of this highly abstract and subtle dialogue, he makes audible temporal adjustments to place Marina and the Pretender in a different time from the other characters. The most common criticisms of the so-called Polish Act - its monotony, repetitiveness, and the superficial device of mazurka and polonaise rhythms to convey "Polishness" (37) - misunderstand the temporal importance of these devices. The fact that this act transpires in a world apart becomes instantly apparent by Musorgsky's use of key signatures, unique to this act. Just as this music is tonally definable, according to Musorgsky, it is likewise temporally definable. The rhythmically identifiable, tonally straightforward, utterly predictable dance form, with clear endpoints and expectations, is the perfect musical manifestation of Marina's limited world.

Pushkin and Musorgsky, then, turn Marina and the Pretender into frozen, inanimate things, which nevertheless act. On the contrary, while both artists emphasize Boris' life force in every way, they trap him in a single paralyzed moment. (38) Both Musorgsky and Pushkin chart Boris' development by means of references to his soul. Nearly the first thing we hear of Pushkin's Boris is that he strengthened his sister by pouring his spirit into her" [znat', sam Boris sei dukh v nee vselil] (6). As in the opera, this reference to Boris' spirit runs as a motif throughout the play, each event measured by its effect on his soul. Further, Boris repeatedly prefaces his most significant remarks by saying "I feel," a device which Musorgsky also transplants into the opera. Bemoaning his people's lack of appreciation, Boris says,

Akh! chuvstvuiu: nichto ne mozhet nas

Sredi mirskikh pechalei uspokoit'.

[Ah, I feel: nothing can give us

Peace amid worldly cares.] (21)

In response to Shuisky's vivid description of Dmitry's death, Boris suffers acute physical discomfiture, with words that initiate the Hallucination Scene in the opera:

Ukh, tiazhelo! dai dukh perevedu--

Ia chuvstvoval: vsia krov' moi v litso

mne kinulas' --i tiazhko opuskalas'...


[Oh, I'm oppressed! give me air--

I felt: all the blood rushed to my face

and painfully drained....] (40)

On his deathbed Boris tells his son:

No chuvstvuiu--moi syn, ty mne dorozhe

Dushevnogo spasen'ia...

Ia chuvstvuiu mogil'nyi


[But I feel, my son, you are dearer to me

than my soul's salvation...

I feel the grave's coldness....] (71, 73)

These articulations of "I feel" add nothing to the content of what Boris says, nor are they grammatically necessary. In fact, they are somewhat intrusive, sticking out of the texture of the poetry. (39) They function to reinforce the perception of Boris as a living, functioning, human being, in contrast to the lifeless Marina and Dmitry, a human being in whom life processes take place.

Boris' humanity places him in a different time than the dimensionless caricatures who surround him. He makes a statement of critical import to Shuisky, in both play and opera:

Proshedshii lzhi... ne nakazhu.

No esli ty teper' so mnoi khitrish',

to golovoiu syna klianus'--tebia

postignet zlaia kazn'....


[Past lies... I will not punish,

But if you are crafty with me now,

by my son's head I swear--an

evil fate will befall you....]

Boris does a very human thing here, something of which no other character in his world is capable - he expresses doubt. In contrast to the self-righteous conviction of Pimen, the monomania of Marina, the concocted "facts" of Shuisky and the Pretender, Boris actually tries to distinguish between truth and falsehood, and in so doing, distinguishes between present and past.

In the context of the interrelationship between time and truth, the final and perhaps most important character to consider is the Fool. As in Shakespearean drama, which influenced Pushkin greatly, (40) the Fool in Boris Godunov stands outside the norms of the society around him, and may speak the truth with impunity. The force of Russian tradition, which sees the simpleton as a holy man who can foresee the future, (41) further fortifies the Fool's credibility, adding the implication of divine inspiration. As a soothsayer, he is arguably incapable of lying, and thus, unlike any other character, enjoys unassailable integrity.

The Fool's ability to look into the future places him, in the most literal sense, in a different time. Yet even he does not entirely escape the time warp of this drama. The Fool must abandon his customary vision of the future to look into the past, to speak honestly about the death of Dmitry. In the non-linear, moment-to-moment time of the world of Godunov, only the Fool has access to past, present and future, only the Fool exists in real time and sees real truth. He tells us this with the first words of his song, mesats svetit [the moon shines], which Musorgsky changes to the more explicit mesats edet [the moon goes.] (42) Of all the characters, only the Fool measures time objectively, by the immutable and tamper-resistant waxing and waning of the moon. It is highly significant that, when Boris tries to enter this world of measured time - and of truth - he goes insane, to the ticking of a clock.


Language as Music

What are the implications of this for Musorgsky's music - these grammar rules, this particularly Russian world view, the extremely complex relationships which each character demonstrates between time and truth, Musorgsky's own wish to create music that is "true and precise"? The recomposed second act of Boris Godunov may serve as an illustration. Throughout this act several factors, none of which is self-contained or conclusive, operate to provide coherence. Musorgsky creates a web of motives, in the colloquial, not musical sense of the word - linear phrases, harmonic progressions, sonorities, names, words, symbols and events which interconnect, literally motivating comprehension in the listener through memory, association and dissociation.

Tonally Musorgsky prepares not one, but two keys, the latter of which is itself ultimately turned into a dominant preparation. In his criticism of Kurth's analysis of Tristan und Isolde, McCreless makes the following observation:

Kurth is, of course, right in asserting that the two chords [the A major and A major triads that accompany the words todgeweihtes Haupt] are not diatonically related. Yet he is so intent upon pointing out the "absolute," nondiatonic character of the progression and describing its coloristic and emotive effect that he ignores its real structural meaning: it compresses into a single progression elements of both A and C, the two tonalities of the complex that forms the tonal polarity of the first act of the opera. In this sense it is not only charged with dramatic and musical meaning, but it also constitutes a referential connection from the level of harmonic detail to that of large-scale tonal structure. Rather than being "absolute" and relating only to one another, the two chords, as well as the progression as a whole, refer to the entirety of the first act. Kurth introduces them in the service of an ill-conceived theory of tonal disintegration, whereas they actually comprise a classic example of a new kind of tonal integration that developed in the nineteenth century. (43)

This type of tonal integration exists in Musorgsky's music as well and forms the tonal rationale for this second act of Boris Godunov. As the diagram in figure 1 shows, Musorgsky interweaves preparation for the two principal key areas of the Hallucination Scene, A and A, throughout the act.

Preparation, in the context of Musorgsky's music, consists of dominants, secondary dominants, upper and lower leading tones, and tritones and augmented triads which can resolve to the key in question. We can see from this diagram that approximately equivalent preparation exists for each key; in other words, the two keys are equally weighted. The critical sonority which occurs so frequently throughout the opera, the augmented triad C-E-G#, in a sense conflates both A (by means of the dominant pitch E and leading tone G#) and A flat (inasmuch as it contains the "tonic" pitch G# in a skewed version of the A chord). Thus chords in close proximity which may not readily reveal their function on a localized level - or, indeed, their function in relation to one another - may, as McCreless observes, be aiming toward a more distant destination or a larger-scale harmonic rationale.

Similarly, Musorgsky employs non-tonal constructions to emphasize and connect dramatic events. The octatonic chords which accompany Boris' crisis of soul at his coronation subsequently hound him throughout the opera, surfacing time and again to erupt in full-scale octatonicism in the Hallucination. The augmented triad sonority combines with tonal passages in each of Boris' major confrontations, first with the people at his coronation (Prologue, Scene 2), second with his own failures as tsar in his monologue (Act II, Scene 2), next with his bloodguilt in the Hallucination (Act II, Scene 4), finally with the embodiment of truth, in the persona of the Fool (Act IV).

The form of this act consists not in any kind of static entity, but in a gradual accumulation of dissonance and departure from tonal definition. From the first controlled tritones of Feodor's encounter with the clock and the discreet augmented triads of the nanny's song, dissonance builds steadily and gradually throughout the act, non-tonal collections increasingly intrude. The boundaries of the act, both musical and dramatic, summarize this procedure. The act begins and ends with soliloquies by individuals whom Musorgsky takes pains to isolate, Boris in his insanity, Ksenia in her grief. As quickly becomes evident, Ksenia's situation - eternal devotion to a dead lover - holds no potential whatsoever. It is autistic, completely defined and delimited, with no capacity for development, movement or progress of any kind. Her music reflects this, a constant, uncomplicated B minor.


            to A                                                     Dramatic Activity                                            to A

                                                                       Ksenia's song B m.                                          b flat minor

            F#                                                       Feodor interrupts                                                           

            B flat-E tritone; V/A                               Clock                                                              C# - G tritone, V/A

                                                                       Nanny's allegorical song                                   E flat-[Cm-D flat-G flat-B flat- E flat m]

                                                                                                                                             aug. triads G flat-B flat-D D flat- F-A

                                                                                                                                             tritones E flat-A, C-G flat

                                                                       Feodor and Nanny's song                                G --V/A flat

            B                                                         Boris interrupts
                                                                      Ksenia as dove                                                E flat - G

                                                                       Feodor studies the map  
            E-V/C#-V/G#-                                       Boris' monologue                                            A flat -G lat -E flat -[G flat -A flat -C flat ] - E flat

            aug. triad C-E-G#                                                                                                       aug. triad E-G-B

                                                                                                                                             tritone A-E flat

            to Am                                                   Noise interrupts

            A-                                                        Announcement of Shuisky                                -V/G-A

            Fm-D flat -A                                         Feodor's Parrot Song

            C#-V/E-V/G#-Am                                 Boris praises Feodor's honesty                          E flat m-G-D flat

            C-V/E-V/G-Am                                     Boris condemns Shuisky's dishonesty

            F#-D--V7/E;                                         Shuisky informs Boris about Pretender              E flat

                                                                                                                                             G-B-D# aug. triad

            V/A* A*

            tritone B flat/E                                                                                                             tritone D-A flat*

            C-E-A flat over                                     Boris threatens Shuisky regarding lies

            E flat pedal - B

            F#-V/C#-                                             Shuisky's description of Dmitry's death

            aug. triad C-E-G#

            Am-aug. triad C-E-G#                           Boris hallucinates                                             aug. triad B-D#-G

            tritones B-F, A-E flat                                                                                                    tritones C#-G, C-F#

            B pedal-V/E-                                                                                                               - A7

                                                                                                                        *sonorities sound simultaneously

Figure 1: Preparation for Two Keys in Boris Godunov

In Boris' hallucination, on the other hand, Musorgsky presents an unmistakably comprehensive range of tonal potential. Two fundamental elements vie with each other - tonal structures with atonal structures. The scene can be perceived as a large-scale motion from I to V to I, with the critical proviso that the identity of I changes midstream from A to A flat. Superimposed upon this tonal structure, however, is another structure comprised of four of the six tritones, the most tonally undermining of any interval, especially in the kind of profusion found here; the entire wholetone octad; and the octatonic tetrachord 4-13, significant in that it is a subset of every octatonic hexachord except one, and therefore can point in more directions than any other octatonic collection. These non-tonal pitch collections, giving no clue as to their ultimate goal, offering the possibility of resolution to all twelve keys, struggle against a persistent B natural, which is either the dominant pedal to V (E) or mimics a dominant pedal. The tonal shift from A to A flat is accomplished not by modulation but by an instantaneous reinterpretation (revision, if you will) of D#, once leading tone to E, now dominant of A flat. The Hallucination concludes not with a definition of A as a tonality but with A interpreted in two ways, one as part of an A seventh chord, dominant to the D flat of Boris' death two acts away; second, as part of the augmented triad, C-E-A flat, the sonority with which the opera will end in the Fool's lament for the futile fate of Russia. Thus, like insanity itself, the music of Boris' hallucination is unpredictable, capable of moving in any direction. The Second Act then progresses from limitation and definition to the unlimited and undefined.

In light of these features of Musorgsky's composition, it is interesting to note the characteristically Russian theorist Boris Asafiev's equation of musical form and process. Whereas western harmony has "enslaved the ear... with its mechanical predetermination," music should manifest "a tendency toward a progressively more intense feeling of destabilized equilibrium," which alone will awaken the listener's consciousness of the unfolding dynamic form of music. (44) Repeatedly throughout his treatise Musical Form as Process, Asafiev emphasizes the necessity for movement in music, and that only by constant replacement of stable sonorities with unstable can music exist. Only these unstable sonorities, to which the listener has not inured himself, can penetrate the consciousness and thus create the movement which, as the title of his work makes clear, in itself constitutes musical form.

I steadfastly maintain that form is exposed and experienced only in the motion of music itself, in the process of its formation, but it is conceived by our consciousness... post factum, as the grasp of what has been heard. (45)

In other words, musical form is a dynamic phenomenon which, for convenience of discussion (literally, to turn it into something expressible in words), is reduced to stasis.

Another Russian theorist, Yavorsky, expresses a similar notion in his discussion of the tritone, an interval which, in Russian music theory, explicitly offers the possibility of resolution to two keys. Yavorsky describes the resolution of the tritone as a move from instability to stability, then goes on to elaborate:

Instability in our ears is the embodiment in sound of the law of gravitation, and, as the cause, it necessitates further movement. Stability is the temporary halt of the motion, and, as the result, it does not have an independent meaning outside of its cause; it may not exist independently. (46)

Yavorsky's explanation first attempts to relate dissonance to the natural phenomenon of gravity and then clearly states that it is the instability of dissonance which imbues music with "meaning," echoing the preference we have found in Russian grammar, history and literature, for ongoing process over completed action.

This is the essence of the structure of Musorgsky's music. His harmonic language consists not in movement directed toward a single goal which, once attained, has reached conclusion, but in a kaleidoscopic type of process rooted in a constantly changing perspective, a re-examination of the same material which interprets it as ever new. There is neither hierarchy nor limit to this type of process; there is no "correct" conclusion to reach which subjugates all other material to itself. There is no moment of revelation because there is nothing to reveal. Rather there are moments of realization as each new point of view unfolds, each new possibility is considered, each new implication is suggested. None of these "solutions," however, is any better, any more conclusive than any other. Ultimately there is only the never-exhausted process itself. This type of musical organization evokes Asafiev's ideal of a "progressively more intense feeling of destabilized equilibrium," as well as Jakobson's definition of byt, "the creative urge toward a transformed future" opposed by an immutable present, Maiakovskii's "animated tendency in things," Chaadaev's dead and stagnant life, nevertheless plagued by a sense of instability - the implication of potential never brought to fruition, eternally unresolved, eternally present. This is the time and the truth of Musorgsky's music.

1. Petra Weber-Bockholdt, 1982. Die Lieder Mussorgskijs. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag. 144

2. Modest Musorgsky, 1932. Pis'ma i dokumenti [Letters and documents] Moscow: Gos. Muz. Izd. N. Rimsky-Korsakov, ed. 424-425.

3. Letter dated 30 July 1868, Modest Musorgsky, 1981. Pis'ma [Letters] Moscow: Muzyzka. 68.

4. Nancy Basmajian, 1982. "The Romances," in Musorgsky: In Memoriam 1881-1981. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. Malcolm Brown, ed. 32; an approach shared in greater or lesser extent by Ruzana Karpovna Shirinian, 1973. Evoliutsiia opernogo tvorchestva Musorgskogo [The evolution of Musorgsky's operatic work] Moscow: Muzyka; Gerald Abraham, 1939. "Musorgsky's Boris and Pushkin's," Music and Letters, Vol. 26, 31-38.; Richard Taruskin, 1981. Opera and Drama in Russia as Preached and Practiced in the 1860s. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.

5. Musorgsky was in frequent communication with his close friend and professor of linguistics, Vladimir Vasilievich Nikolsky; moreover, many contemporaries attest to his unusually sensitive ear for the "nuances" of human speech, as well as his thorough knowledge of archaic and dialectic forms of Russian speech. Richard Hoops, 1982. "Musorgsky and the Populist Age," in Brown, 1982. 284; Jan Leyda and Sergei Bertensson, 1947. The Musorgsky Reader: A Life of Modest Petrovich Musorgsky in Letters and Documents. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc. 144-45; Alexandra Orlova, 1983. Musorgsky: Days and Works. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. Roy Guenther, ed. and trans. 205.

6. Benjamin Whorf, 1956. Language, Thought and Reality. Cambridge: MIT University Press. John B. Carroll, ed. 73; George Lakoff, 1986. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 320, 325.

7. Letter dated 28 June 1870, Musorgsky, 1981, 83.

8. Interestingly, in the tale of Boris Godunov one of the central issues is what name to call the Pretender, an issue which neither Pushkin nor Musorgsky ever resolves conclusively. Musorgsky moreover makes Boris' attempt to discern the Pretender's name the centerpiece of the opera.

9. A. P. Vlasto, 1986. A Linguistic History of Russia to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 150-151.

10. E. Matveyeva, 1985. "The Use of Aspect in Four Russian Translations of 'The Invisible Man' by H. G. Wells," in Contrastive Studies in Verbal Aspect. Heidelberg Groos Verlag. Iurii Maslov, ed. 81.

11. Vlasto, 1986, 150-151.

12. Johanna Nichols, 1985. "The Grammatical Marking of Theme in Literary Russian," in Issues in Russian Morphosyntax. Columbus: Slavica Publishers Inc. Michael Flier and Richard Brecht, eds. 172.

13. Vlasto, 1986, makes the interesting observation that the passive voice, while it exists in Russian, is strenuously avoided, since "action is more important than the actor, verbs are more important than nouns,"190.

14. Vlasto, 1986, 293-295. Likewise the future formulation with budet' came into the language only in the 15th century, very late for something so basic.

15. Vlasto, 1986, 168.

16. Vlasto, 1986, 159-162, 243-250.

17. Quoted in Maslov, 1985, 3.

18. Hockett, 237, quoted in Maslov, 1985, 4.

19. Maslov, 1985, 4.

20. Iurii Lotman, 1985. Leksii po struktural'noi poetiki, Trudy po znakovym sistemam I. [Lectures on structural poetry, works on the sign system] Tartu. 161; Lidiia Ginsburg, 1985. "The 'Human Document' and the Formation of Character," in The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Alexander and Alice Stone Nakhimovsky, eds. 194.

21. Karamzin's path-breaking history, so admired by many including Musorgsky and Pushkin, is fictional in many respects; so are many other accounts of Russian history, not to mention the machinations of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union. As history shows, this "revisionist history" is not a creation of the Communist Party, but an approach to the past inherent in Russian thinking from the earliest times.

22. Edward J. Brown, 1973. Major Soviet Writers. New York: Oxford University Press.

23. Roman Jakobson, 1975. "On a Generation that Squandered its Poets," in Twentieth Century Russian Literary Criticism. New Haven: Yale University Press. Victor Erlich, ed. 142-144.

24. Sergei Platonov, 1973. Boris Godunov, Tsar of Russia. Gulf Breeze: Academic International Press. L. Rex Pyles, trans. 137; Ian Grey, 1973. Boris Godunov, the Tragic Tsar. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 115-116; Ruslan G. Skrynnikov, 1982. Boris Godunov. Gulf Breeze: Academic International Press. Hugh F. Graham, ed. and trans. 51-55.

25. Lotman, 1985, 153, 158.

26. Nikolai Karamzin, 1966. Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenie [Complete collection of poetry]. Moscow/Leningrad. 19.

27. Alexandra Orlova and Maria Schneerson, 1982. "After Pushkin and Karamzin: Researching the Sources for Boris Godunov," in Brown, 1982. 249-270; Caryl Emerson, 1986. Boris Godunov: Transpositions of a Russian Theme. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

28. Cited in Ia. Eidel'man, 1983. Poslednii letopisets [Last chronicle]. Moscow: Kniga. 150.

29. Nikolai Karamzin, 1818. Istoriia gosudarstva rossiiskogo [History of the Russian state]. St. Petersburg. Vol. IX, 13.

30. Emerson, 1986, 45.

31. Platonov, 1973, 138.

32. These peculiarities of Musorgsky's notational practice can be observed in the holograph full score of Boris Godunov, MS 3695 of the Central Music Library of the State Academic Theaters in Saint Petersburg.

33. Caryl Emerson, 1985. "Pretenders to History: Four Plays for Undoing Pushkin's Boris Godunov," Slavic Review, Vol. 44, No. 2. 261-262.

34. Emerson, 1985, 259.

35. Dmitry Mirsky, 1934. "Problema Pushkina" [The problem of Pushkin], Literaturnoe nasledstvo [Literary heritage]. Moscow. 102.

36. Roman Jakobson, 1975. "Marginal Notes on Eugene Onegin," in Pushkin and his Sculptural Myth. The Hague: Mouton and Co. John Burbank, ed. and trans. 54.

37. Robert Oldani, 1978. Diss. University of Michigan. "New Perspectives on Musorgsky's Boris Godunov." Ann Arbor: UMI. 275.

38. For Pushkin, this is only one of many examples of the juxtaposition of the living statue with the lifeless human being, see Jakobson, 1975. "The Statue in Pushkin's Poetic Mythology," in Pushkin and his Sculptural Myth. 1-44.

39. These expressions, both in the play and the opera, are "deformative" in a different way as well. Pushkin actually misuses an image, undoubtedly intentionally, and Musorgsky preserves this misuse in the Hallucination Scene. In Russian, the cessation of breathing, extensively prepared especially in the opera, is not associated with fright, but is "restricted to situations of ecstacy and anger:" dukh zakhvatyvaet ot vostorga [lit. it cuts one's breath from ecstacy], dykhanie perekhvatyvaet ot gneva [be choking with anger]. The 'correct' physical manifestation of fear is drozhat ot strakha [tremble with fear]. Musorgsky uses the word drozhat, but in connection with the actions of the phantom of the bloody child, not to describe Boris' actions. L. Iordanskaja, 1986. "Russian Expressions Denoting Physical Symptoms of Emotion," Lingua, Vol. 69. 245-282.

40. M. P. Alekseev,1984. "Pushkin i Shekspir" [Pushkin and Shakespeare], Pushkin: Stravitel'no-istoricheskie isledovaniia [Comparative historical inquiry]. Leningrad: Nauka. 253-292; Emerson, 1986, 108-113.

41. George P. Fedotov, 1975. The Russian Religious Mind, Chapter XII. Belmont: Nordland Publishing Company. John Meyendorff, ed. Both Pushkin and Musorgsky specifically designate this character Yurodivyi, not an idiot or lunatic, but a privileged Holy Fool. An interesting parallel with Dostoevsky exists here, whose novel Idiot explores precisely the peril of a saintly fool in an amoral world.

42. The use of the verb edet here, applied only to vehicles, is itself a conscious deformation, an entirely inappropriate use of the verb, drawing attention to the moon's passage.

43. Patrick McCreless, 1983. "Ernst Kurth and the Analysis of the Chromatic Music of the Late Nineteenth Century," Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 5, 70.

44. Boris Asafiev, 1977. Musical Form as Process. Ann Arbor; UMI. James B. Tull, ed. and trans. 194.

45. Asafiev, 1977, 553 fn. 2.46 codified in S. V. Protopov, 1978. The Elements of the Structure of Musical Speech. Ann Arbor: UMI. Gordon McQuere, ed. and trans. 23.

46. codified in S.V. Protopov, 1978, The Elements of the Strudture of Musical Speech. Ann Arbor: UMI. Gordon McQuere, ed. and trans. 23.