Like Mussorgsky's earlier Boris Godunov, Khovanshchina deals with an episode in Russian history, first brought to the composer's attention by his friend Vladimir Stasov. It concerns the rebellion of Prince Ivan Khovansky, the Old Believers, and the Streltsy against Peter the Great, who was attempting to institute Westernizing reforms to Russia. Peter succeeded, the rebellion was crushed and the Old Believers committed mass suicide.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed, revised, and scored Khovanshchina in 1881–1882. Because of his extensive cuts and "recomposition", Dmitri Shostakovich revised the opera in 1959 based on Mussorgsky's vocal score, and it is the Shostakovich version that is usually performed. In 1913 Igor Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel made their own arrangement at Sergei Diaghilev's request.
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