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Shostakovich and the Fool: Boris Godunov and King Lear

The most galvanizing Shakespeare experience I know is the 1971 Soviet film version of King Lear directed by Grigory Kozintsev with music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Its dimensions are such that it fails on a home screen; it demands a big theater and big sound.

The profound Russianness of the Kozintsev/Shostakovich Lear transcends language. Re-encountering this great film in the context of PostClassical Ensemble’s ongoing two-season Russian Revolution immersion experience, I realized its Russian lineage connects to the most famous of all Russian operas: Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that Shakespeare’s iconic seventheenth century play is here conflated with Mussorgsky’s iconic nineteenth century opera.

Obviously, both play and opera deal with a ruler who sins, and who dies consumed by crazed guilt. (Boris was complicit in the murder of the Tsarevich, and so ascended the throne.) But there is a more literal resemblance, a character common to Lear and Boris, and of special importance to Shostakovich. And that is the Fool.

The Fool can say what others cannot. In Boris Godunov, he alone can tell the Tsar to his face that he’s a murderer – and not be punished.

In Boris, the Fool comes last: one of the most original finales in opera. A conventional ending would have been the Tsar’s agonized death. He empties the throne room of all but the Tsarevich, sings “Farewell, my son, I am dying,” and expires. And that in fact is how the first version of Boris Godunov ends. But in Mussorgsky’s final version of 1872, Boris’s death, however affecting, is penultimate. Mussorgsky trumps it with a culminating vignette in the Kromy Forest. The People – a pervasive presence – acclaim a false pretender to the throne. They march with him on Moscow, emptying the stage. And – the culminating stroke – the Fool sings:

Cry, cry Russian land

Russian people


(Here is the peerless Ivan Kozlovsky, as Mussorgsky’s Fool, from a Soviet film version of the opera.)

In the Kozintsev/Shostakovich Lear, Lear’s death is witnessed by the People – an oppressed ubiquitous presence, as in Mussorgsky’s opera. The funeral cortege exits. And the Fool plays his plaintive song.  It is Mussorgsky’s ending, transplanted to King Lear.

(You won’t find the Soviet Lear on youtube, but there is a video of excerpts with live accompaniment conducted by Claudio Abbado; the pertinent ending begins at 1:08.)

Mussorgsky’s sad, suffering Fool embodies a mass of sad, suffering humanity. So, too, does the Kozintsev/Shostakovich Fool. His centrality is such that his song begins the movie, accompanying the credits. Then comes a trudging horde of placeless people. Shostakovich’s scoring of this procession practically mimics Mussorgsky. The beginning of Shakespeare’s play is delayed fully five minutes.

The People even turn up in Edgar’s hut – it becomes a homeless shelter. And they elicit some of Shostakovich’s most potent and characteristic music. Their effect is to explicitly amplify and ramify the tragedy. Doubtless, Shakespeare’s dysfunctional royal family implicitly embodies a larger malaise. In the Kozintsev/Shostakovich King Lear, this malaise is explicit. We see it. It is epic, as vast as Russia itself.

Kozintsev wrote of the ending of Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Lear has no end – at least there is no finale in the play: none of the usual solemn trumpets of tragedy, or magnificent burials. The bodies, even of kings, are carried out under conditions of war; nobody even says a few elevated words. The time for words is over.”

This dire view of the human condition was also Shostakovich’s view, numbed by decades of Stalinist fear and oppression.

Reinforcing these linkages of Lear with Boris is Shostakovich’s reverence for Mussorgsky. He undertook a new orchestration of Boris Godunov. He orchestrated Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. For Shostakovich, as for Mussorgsky, art was never for art’s sake. It possessed an ethical dimension. It commented on human affairs. Shostakovich said of Mussorgsky:

“Mussorgsky’s concept is profoundly democratic. The people are the base of everything. The people are here and the rulers are there. The rule forced on the people is immoral and fundamentally anti-people. The best intentions of individuals don’t count. That’s Mussorgky’s position and I dare hope that it is also mine.

“Meaning in music – that must sound very strange for most people. Particularly in the West. It’s here in Russia that the question is usually posed: What was the composer trying to say, after all? The questions are naïve, of course, but despite their naivete and crudity, they definitely merit being asked. Can music make man stop and think? Can it cry out and thereby draw man’s attention to various vile acts? All these questions began for me with Mussorgsky.”

The official Soviet view of Mussorgsky, as propagated under Stalin, is not irrelevant: he was an “artist of the masses,” an enemy of art for art’s sake. He projected a social conscience.

Stalin of course would never have endorsed Shostakovich’s Mussorgsky encomium, with its repudiation of the “rule forced on the people.”  But as surely as Mussorgsky, as surely as Shostakovich, he rejected art for art’s sake. It was an instrument of patriotism, of propaganda, of Socialist Realist uplift.

A remarkable recent book — Stalin’s Music Prize by Marina Frolova-Walker – opens a window on Shostakovich the cultural bureaucrat. Culling Soviet archives previously shut, she documents the deliberations deciding the Stalin Prizes awarded to Soviet composers and musical performers. One discovers that Shostakovich took his role seriously. He embraced the criterion of popular appeal. His predilection that art “make man stop and think” resonates with Mussorgsky, with (an inescapable example) Tolstoy.

It bears mentioning, in this context, that Shostakovich evidently didn’t care for the United States. Also, that he said of his great expatriate contemporary Igor Stravinsky that he detected “a flaw in his personality, a loss of some important moral principles. . . . Maybe he was the most brilliant composer of the twentieth century. But he always spoke only for himself, while Mussorgsky spoke for himself and for his country.”

I am not suggesting that Shostakovich was an ideologue; there is no Socialist Realist uplift at the conclusion Kozintsev/Shostakovich King Lear. But it aligns with ideals of Russian art that endured into Soviet times. It insists upon a social context. It make us ponder people other than ourselves.

The Shostakovich quotes I cite above are from Solomon Volkov’s Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich. This invaluable book is today widely reviled as fraudulent. But there is no “objective” reading of Shostakovich the man. I am certain that Testimony records a true picture of Shostakovich as experienced by Solomon Volkov. (The same could be said of my own Conversations with Arrau, which Claudio Arrau’s cousin – a Pinochet supporter — repudiated as a false portrait.) Today, no one can deny that Shostakovich’s scores are packed with encoded meanings subverting the Stalinist status quo.

In his Introduction to Testimony, Volkov calls Shostakovich “the second great yurodivy composer,” Mussorgsky having been the first. “The yurodivy is a Russian religious phenomenon, which even the cautious Soviet scholars call a national trait. . . . The yurodivy has the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about. But he tells the world about his insight in an intentionally paradoxical sway, in code. The plays the fool, which actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice. The yurodivy is an anarchist and individualist, who in his public role breaks the commonly held ‘moral’ laws of behavior and flouts conventions. But he sets strict limitations, rules, and taboos for himself.”

I would say that the King Lear adaptation of Grigori Kozintsev and Dmitiri Shostakovich suggests that Shostakovich identified with Shakespeare’s Fool. And that is why the Fool, not Shakespeare’s Albany, has the last word.

A final observation: during the Cold War, Shostakovich was widely perceived in the West as a composer whose early genius had been snuffed out by ideology and politics: a Soviet stooge. The notion of Shostakovich the yurodivy was as yet unglimpsed.  The Congress for Cultural Freedom, funded by the CIA, extolled Stravinsky and other artists of the Free World. And JFK delivered eloquent speeches denying that art could flourish in totalitarian states. In retrospect,  many delicious paradoxes complicate these decades of cultural propaganda, during which the most enduring concert music was being composed in the Soviet Union, not Europe or the US. PostClassical Ensemble ends its two-year commemoration of the Russian Revolution on May 23 at Washington National Cathedral with “Secret Music Skirmishes of the Cold War: The Shostakovich Case” – an evening including former US Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle, former CIA Staff Historian Nicholas Dujmovic, and former Soviet refusenik Vladimir Feltsman.

And next weekend we present the first Kozintsev-Shostakovich collaboration – the classic avant-garde Soviet silent film The New Babylon (1929) – with Shostakovich’s enfant terrible score performed live by PostClassical Ensemble and Angel Gil-Ordonez. That’s at the American Film Institute (Silver Spring, Md.). Information:



















  1. Mather Pfeiffenberger says

    Joe, great article, thanks. I’m looking forward to the showing of The New Babylon this weekend and to the May 23rd concert and discussion. Having grown up in the 1960s at the height of Cold War liberalism, I’m fascinated by your emerging reevaluation of Shostakovich during that period and look forward to a good discussion.

    I haven’t watched this all the way through, but this appears to be a complete version of the Kosintsev/Shostakovich King Lear (with English subtitles) on YouTube:

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