Alexander Borodin was a self-described “Sunday composer”: a scientist by day, he wrote music in his free time but nonetheless won enough acclaim as a composer of Russian art music to gain a position among the country’s “Mighty Handful.” He began writing music as a devotee of Mendelssohn, but quickly changed his language to something of a more nationalistic bent. Still, echoes of Mendelssohn’s style, particularly his talents for lyrical, melodic writing, remain an underlying theme in Borodin’s later, folk-influenced works.
Because of his lifelong work in chemistry and medicine, Borodin’s output is, relative to other composers, exceedingly small. His primary works include his Second Symphony, a handful of songs, a particularly notable String Quartet (the Second) and his opera Prince Igor, for which he wrote both the music and the libretto. Borodin worked on the opera for some two decades, but left it unfinished at his death in 1887. His colleagues Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov finished the work (including recreating the overture from sketches that Borodin had sung to his colleagues, a feat that Glazunov is said to have done from memory) in time for an 1890 premiere. The opera, though posthumous and largely filled in by others, took a respected position as an emblem of Russian nationalist music, and although the opera’s plot may more accurately be called a series of sketches, the total effect is still vibrant and unified.
By the end of the second act of Prince Igor, the title character has been taken prisoner by the Polovtsian Khan Konchak. The Khan, intrigued by his depressed captive, calls in a group of slaves to liven Prince Igor’s spirits. The servants’ songs begin as sentimental recollections of their homeland, but gradually gain vigor and become shouts in praise of the slaves’ royal master. The process takes roughly 11 minutes, during which a flurry of energetic winds and percussion join in a sparkling, rhythm-driven dance. The instrumentation is brilliant and crystalline, reliant upon powerful brass and soloistic woodwinds to brighten the already exotic, lithe melodies.
Borodin was not an ethnomusicologist; his sketches contain a handful of melodies that he apparently considered to be equally appropriate for both the main body of the opera and those parts which concern the nomadic Polovtsians. But in spite of a general disdain among the Mighty Handful for incorporating explicitly “ethnic” signatures (César Cui, a close friend of Borodin’s, was particularly emphatic about this), the Polovtsian scenes in Prince Igor do contain a smattering of appropriate rhythmic and melodic influences. In addition, Borodin’s bright tone colors, graceful melodic lines, and energetic rhythms create a general feeling of celebration and enthusiasm that make the work appropriate as a piece for both the operatic stage and the concert hall.
Jessica Schilling is a music and entertainment writer for the Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera.
Composed: 14 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine, triangle), harp, strings, and chorus
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 9, 1922, Alfred Hertz conducting