Tsar Ivan Vasilievich was not just Terrible, he was Гроэныӥ (Grozny), meaning ‘Thunderous’ or ‘Awesome’ ruler. This is what Varlaam calls Ivan in the Inn Scene of Boris Godunov as he sings of the legendary Battle of Kazan. But Terrible works too: don’t mess with Ivan.
He, named after John the Baptist and seventeen at the time, was crowned Tsar Ivan IV in January 1547. Ivan’s father, Grand Prince Vasily, died suddenly when the lad was four; his young mother died mysteriously when he was eight. Too young to be Tsar, the rule of Russia was disputed by rival Boyars, noblemen of the court who treated young Ivan like dirt. Ultimately a terrible mistake, this. Though still a minor, a perceptive Ivan was learning the rules of the game.
After his coronation, Ivan selected a bride from supposedly hundreds of candidates. Anastasia Zakharina-Romanova bore him six children, three boys and three daughters, but, sadly, his eldest son Dimitri drowns when a nurse holding him slips and drops the infant into icy water.
On a bigger front, Ivan waged a successful war against the invading Tartars, winning a decisive victory at Kazan in 1552. To celebrate, he ordered the construction of a massive cathedral in Red Square in the shape of an eight pointed star, today known as St. Basil’s.
As a point of reference in time: when Charles V abdicates in 1556, the reign in Spain stays mainly on son Philip II but Chuck 5 also places P's brother Ferdinand I in the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. Previously, Philip had governed the Netherlands territory, the rebellion in which remained a thorn in his side. Here is the stuff of Verdi’s grand opera in every way Don Carlo.
But, back to the matter at hand, in 1560 Anastasia died mysteriously. Ivan will marry again and again, but he had suffered a great loss with her passing. He became prone to terrors, depression and paranoia. In spite of his many many advances in knowledge, art, music, and trade in Russia, Ivan is remembered for his more Terrible deeds, such as executing 60,000 citizens in Novgorod and forming an elite group of 6,000 guards, called the Oprichniki, who effectively maintained his bloody hold over the population.
In 1580, Ivan, his eldest son and heir, and Tsar Ivan fell into a bitter argument. Boris Godunov, a faithful courtier to the Tsar, tried to stay Ivan’s hand against his son, but Ivan smashes his son’s skull with his staff. The remainder of the Tsar’s life is one of abject misery, insanity, and bizarre behavior, howling, laughing hysterically, throwing fits, and so on. This is the stuff of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic film in two parts Ivan the Terrible.
After Ivan’s death on March 17, 1584, he is succeeded by Fyodor, last son of Anastasia. Feeble minded, he reigned for 14 years under the guidance of the very same Boris Godunov, friend of pere Ivan, oh, and even better: Boris’s sister was married to Feodor. Allegedly, around this time Boris orders the assassination of Prince Dimitri, the youngest son by Ivan’s seventh wife. At Fyodor’s death, Boris stages ‘the Tsar by mandate of the assembled crowd’ event, which is not exactly, but pretty darn close to tampering with the election. He is crowned in 1598. These are the meat of the first two scenes, the Prologue of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov.
The final scenes of Boris Godunov tell of Boris’s fall: in 1601 or 1603, Grishka Otrepyev, aka the False Dimitri, entered Russia with a sizeable Polish army. The Poles, not to mention the Swedes, always had eyes on the riches to their east. Though Boris defeats the Poles and holds firm, Dimitri as a replacement for Boris gains support from factions of the Boyars. But Boris dies unexpectedly in 1605, ushering in the eight year period known as the ‘Time of Troubles.’ It is here that Dvořák’s Dimitrij begins.
In swift succession, Boris’s sixteen year old son Fyodor, in line to be Tsar, is clubbed to death and the beautiful Xenia, his sister, is banished to a convent. The False Dimitri, crowned later in '05, is Tsar for less than a year. Apparently he does not behave enough like a Russian, plus he has that Polish nag for a wife, so he loses support and is assassinated by the Boyar Vasili Shuisky, who himself is elected Tsar. Legend has it that Dimitri’s ashes were loaded into a cannon and shot back to Poland. So there!
It doesn’t get much better: there are four more Tsars in the next five years. The Swedes invade Novgorod, a second false Dimitri leads Poles to defeat Shuisky, they march on Moscow and capture the Kremlin. Then a False Elvis appears but, happily, for only a brief spell. In 1610 Shuisky is deposed. Seeking some stability, a faction offers the throne of Russia to Vladislav, son of Sigismund III of Poland. But in 1613, the choice finally falls to a young grandnephew of Ivan the Terrible, descendant of Anastasia, one Michael Romanov. The Poles almost find him to kill him, but he is saved by the self sacrificing heroism of Ivan Susanin, immortalized in music by Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar. The rest is history.
Hope this helps.
Ivan Grozny is the subject of Sergei Eisenstein’s two part epic by the same name (in Russian, Part One 1945; Part Two 1958), starring Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan.
My sources are Land of the Firebird: the Beauty of Old Russia by Suzanne Massie, Simon and Schuster, 1980, and The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun, based on Werner Stein’s Kulturfahrplan. Simon and Schuster, Torchstone Edition, 1982.
Added soon will be a list of operas covering the period in question. Just not enough time
Until then, have a good day. J.