“You can’t go out there right now,” says my interpreter. “Because of the landmines,” adds my driver. Earlier this month, we were driving through eastern Ukraine as part of a convoy for the NGO I work with (when I’m not writing about Tchaikovsky’s spit or monkey masturbation as it relates to the offstage life of Enrico Caruso) when we passed the historical site of the Battle of Poltava. The 1709 battle’s historical significance extends beyond its role as turning point in the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia. It’s also a decisive moment in the history of Ukrainian independence: One of Peter the Great’s favorites, the local military commander and Ukrainian separatist Ivan Mazepa, defected to the Swedish side under Charles XII. While the battle was a bloodbath for the Swedes, Mazepa’s defiance of the tsar made him a national hero. 

The landmines are a recent addition; one of the latest salvos in an ongoing fight for self determination. 

As it happened, I’d spent part of that drive back to Poltava listening to a recent—and somewhat brain-breaking—recording of an opera by German Baroque composer Johann Mattheson. Physically, the Hamburg resident wouldn’t have been anywhere near the fields of Poltava in the summer of 1709. He was, however, close to it from a professional standpoint. Seated close to the mouth of the Elbe, which was largely controlled by Denmark on the right bank and by Sweden on the left, Hamburg was a major port of call during its time as an imperial city of the Holy Roman Empire; a cosmopolitan crossroads of politics and commerce. 

It was a society whose uppermost echelons served as a Xanadu for Mattheson, the son of a humble tax collector. At age 12, he got his first taste of the rarefied air when he was appointed as a page at the local court of Ulrik Frederik Gyldenløve (brother to Denmark’s King Christian V and effectively the Vice King of Norway). In addition to his official duties, this was where his musical talent as a boy soprano and keyboardist were encouraged. The attention was intoxicating. 

“To wear a white plume in his hat, an ornamented velvet, a silver cutlass, etc., filled the lad’s heart with delight,” Mattheson wrote in his memoirs. This excess did not have the same effect on his father, who objected to life at court and terminated his son’s contract. “Johann shed bitter tears because he had to give away the lovely finery,” Mattheson reflected. “Of such things is misery made.” 

That Mattheson writes his memoir in the third person is one indication of his over-abundance of self esteem. Passages of his purple German prose make Lorenzo da Ponte seem modest, George Antheil reticent. If they’re not the sprawling, 12-volume set of personal recollections published by Giacomo Casanova, they’re at least the ur-text for Igor Levit’s House Concert: savvy in the art of shaping one’s own narrative, and about as self-reflective as a black hole. Mattheson’s early career as an opera singer, for example, was riddled with duels—including one with his friend Georg Friedrich Handel, whose propensity for large buttons saved his life when he was hit by Mattheson’s sword. As Mattheson tells the story, these disputes came down to jealousy. His own well-documented arrogance was, at best, a red herring.  


Still, even in the early 1700s you could only make so much through a career in music, and that wasn’t enough for Mattheson. He was famous, but he wasn’t wealthy. In 1704, he quit the stage and leveraged his connections to get hired as the tutor to Cyril Wich, son of Hamburg’s English ambassador. Two years later he took on the role of secretary to Cyril’s father, Sir John Wich. When Wich himself was promoted within the byzantine ranks of 18th-century foreign diplomacy, Mattheson’s access to the world stage increased. He met Sweden’s Charles XII in the Leipzig-adjacent city of Altranstädt, during the signing of a peace treaty between Sweden and Poland (one that would become null and void following Sweden’s defeat at Poltava). In Hamburg, he entertained Peter the Great and Denmark’s Christian V. 

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But much of Mattheson’s work was clerical: writing letters, reading reports. His day-to-day was far from glamorous, and often he spent so many hours on correspondence that composing was the last thing he wanted to do in his free time. A brief window of power came and went in 1713, when John Wich died and Mattheson served as basically ambassador regent until Cyril came of age to inherit the position shortly thereafter.

Mattheson must have felt an odd sense of déjà vu at this time, having written an opera based on the life of Boris Godunov just a few years earlier. In 1710, the life and legacy of Tsar Boris was still fresh in the minds of many Europeans. It had only been a little over 125 years since Ivan the Terrible died, leaving just one legitimate son, Fyodor, to inherit the throne. With the “feeble-minded” Fyodor unfit to rule on his own, Boris—whose own sister was married to the young tsar—was appointed to a “regency council” established to help run the country without threatening the divine right of kings. After the death of other council members, Boris became the tsar in all but name. All he had to do was wait for the childless Fyodor to die as well. As the full title of Mattheson’s “Boris Goudenow, or The Throne Attained Through Cunning, or Honor Joined Happily With Affection” would suggest, the action of his opera takes place in this quasi-interregnum between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the coronation of Boris Godunov.

And here’s where my brain starts to break. Knowing the opening of Mussorgsky’s more famous take on the tsar, the kidney-shaking clamor of Orthodox church bells combined with Boris’s first line professing the sadness of his soul, I’m met with expectational whiplash when Mattheson’s overture sounds more like “Alcina” than “Khovanshchina.” The baroque optimism of the opening chorus is, likewise, unclouded by the smoke of incense and famine: “Supreme days of happiness with love and peace serving as our wisest counsel. Division, partition, self-interest: here unity defies you and serves our will.”

Sure, Jan. 

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Of course, Mattheson was a few centuries ahead of Alexander Pushkin’s “Boris Godunov,” the “Henry IV”-like source material for Mussorgksy’s opera. While the German composer’s final opera was, by happenstance, based on the same Shakespeare play that informed Pushkin’s drama, he didn’t apply a comparative literary lens to his Boris. There again, Pushkin’s dramatization of Boris’s life was burdened by its own bias—or, perhaps more accurately, the bias of Pushkin’s personal censor, Tsar Nicholas I. (For this same reason, the character of Ivan Mazepa in Pushkin’s narrative poem, “Poltava,” does not come across as the hero of the story in the same way that he does in Ukrainian history books.) 

Mattheson, whose “Boris” is dedicated “to Mr. Johann Wich, His Royal Majesty of Great Britain’s Extraordinary Ambassador, to the Most Serene Highnesses and Lords, the Dukes of Holstein and Mecklenburg, and to the capitals of the District of Lower Saxony, Landgrave of the Two Caroli- nas etc., to my Most Gracious Lord and Maecenas,” likewise knew which side of his brötchen was buttered. His opera is wise about power—“Gemstones that adorn the crown cover an inner blaze; hands that grasp the scepter hold a dangerous pledge,” sings a decidedly un-feeble Tsar Fyodor in Act I—but it also paints Boris not as a despot, but rather a cunning politician. “‘Upward!’ shall always be my motto,” the once and future tsar sings in Act I. “Majesty means twofold pleasure when craft knows the path and cleverly furthers our goal.” When the opera ends in Boris’s coronation, the event comes after he demurs in earlier discussions over who is to succeed Fyodor. (“Seldom will he be granted what he strongly desires, but often he’ll be offered what he seems to refuse,” Boris tells us in a “Richard III”-like aside.) His soul isn’t sad, it’s sated. 

Throughout his life, and despite a duel that only a button prevented from ending in tragedy, Mattheson remained close friends with Handel. By some accounts, it was Mattheson’s own compositions and writings about music that informed his friend and contemporary’s style, particularly in terms of writing dramatic vocal works. Mattheson also helped Handel get his feet wet in the local opera industry, and wrote many of his works decades before Handel’s greatest hits. 

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This is one of the most difficult things to reconcile with listening to “Boris Goudenow,” a work whose world premiere came in 2005, nearly 300 years after it was written, and only after the score—believed to be destroyed in Hamburg during World War II—was discovered in a library in Yerevan, Armenia. (Mattheson’s were among the cultural artifacts sent to Dresden for safekeeping during the war, and among those war prizes later pinched by the Red Army when they reached the city.) Hearing the opera after Handel’s own works have ridden the wave of a 60-year renaissance, it’s hard not to see Mattheson’s music as Handelesque; even if, given the timeline, it should be the other way around. Tsar Fyodor’s contemplative “Birge dich verbot’ne Glut” sounds like “Pensieri voi mie tormentate” from “Agrippina” after a Bach bender. Boris’s credo-setting “Empor soll mein steter Wahlspruch bleiben” is a slightly anemic “Sibilar gli angui d’aletto” from “Rinaldo.” Why listen to foreign prince Gavust’s aria, “Will sich die Liebe rächen,” when you have Medea’s fiery “Ira, sdegni, e furore” from “Teseo”? 

These are the pratfalls of history. Mattheson was hired as Cyril Wich’s tutor after Handel was fired. Yet we don’t remember the far more successful Wich employee any more than we remember any Boris Godunov bio-opera coming before Mussorgsky’s. In this light, too, Mattheson’s earlier effort feels, much like the False Dmitry, like a pretender to the crown. Would things have been different if Mattheson, like Handel, devoted his life to music instead of balancing his creative output with his aspirations towards statecraft and status? Was his relatively contemporary historical focus—portraying Russian events from the last century—a political misstep, one of the reasons for “Boris Goudenow” never receiving a premiere in Mattheson’s lifetime, confining it to centuries of obscurity? I don’t have the answers. But the timing of this opera’s debut recording, released late last year with a solid cast and committed musical read, means we have a fresh context, historically and artistically, to review it. The time delay, in this case, is an asset. ¶

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