Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin was born in St. Petersburg the “wrong side of the blanket” to a Russian Prince. To cover up the error, in accordance with Russian practice the baby was given the name of one of the Prince’s servants. However his mother was quite wealthy and he received a good private education. As he grew up and developed, he showed coincidentally a musical talent and an interest in chemistry. At the age of 17 years he entered the St. Petersburg Medical – Surgical Academy, with chemistry as his primary study. Graduating, he practised in pathology and surgery. Subsequently he toured throughout Western Europe lecturing and presenting learned papers. In 1862 he returned to Russia, and took up a permanent appointment as Professor of Chemistry at the Medical Academy in St. Petersburg.
It was during those tours (Borodin was also a fine linguist) that he was able to broaden his musical horizons. He met his future wife, a fine pianist, and in 1863 they married. Together they attended performances of Wagner operas, and importantly during later tours they met Liszt in Weimar in 1877. Liszt was influential in introducing Borodin’s music throughout Western Europe.
Now, settled in at the Academy, he was able to devote his “spare time” to his composing. He attached himself to the group of Russian Nationalist Composers, namely César Cui, Balakirev, Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov known as the “mighty handful” (Balakirev being the only “trained musician” among them). Tchaikovsky worked outside the group, but was not unsympathetic to its aims.
Balakirev soon became Borodin’s mentor, and under his critical guidance he was soon to sketch out his 1st Sympathy in Eb. However, its gestation was quite prolonged, and it did not receive its first, acclaimed, performance until 1869.
Borodin was now becoming engrossed in the 12th century Russian epic of the Christian Prince Igor’s struggle against the Tartar hordes. He set about writing a libretto as well as the music for a grand opera. Some progress was made in between his Academic responsibilities, but in the event he never completed it (a task later undertaken by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazounov in 1890).
Concurrently with the Opera, Borodin set about writing his second symphony into which he was to work some early discarded sketches for the Opera. The gestation period was to prove to be longer than the first symphony, because during this period he had to find time to “found” and administer at St.Petersburg Russia’s first Medical School for Women.
Borodin’s music is essentially lyrical, with a hint of the Orient in his harmonic writing. Despite the demands on his time about 20 of what may be regarded as “considerable” works, and about 30 lesser pieces, may today be found in published catalogues.
It has been suggested that the Symphony is a distillation of the spirit of Prince Igor. The 1st movement represents the assembly of the Princely Court and the preparation for war. The Scherzo conjures images of the wide-open skies of the Russian Steppe. The 3rd movement, with its bardic minstrelsy, is the romance between Igor’s son and the Tartar maiden, and the final movement is revelry and feasting.
The Symphony requires a fairly large orchestra, including piccolo, 3 flutes, tuba, harp and a battery of percussion. It received its first public performance at St.Petersburg on 26th February 1877.
1st movement. Allegro
This movement moves between the incisive and the lyrical. It opens with an incisive declamatory first subject which acts as a “motto theme”, binding the movement together. The second subject, lyrical in quality, is first heard in the celli. It is less hard-driven, with the time signatures alternating between 3/2 and 4/2. However, the “motto theme” insists on being heard. The second subject continues, but with its impetus subsiding. It leads into a lengthy episode based on the rhythmic pattern of dotted crotchet/2 dotted quavers (possibly a vision of the wild abandon of galloping horses)! This is an accompanying figure to a variant, in part, of the motto theme. As the dust settles and the pace slackens, Borodin leads directly into a reprise of the second subject. This is given to the oboe, in a reflective mood, in a new key of Eb major. The theme is worked through the orchestra, but this musing is not allowed to continue. All the earlier energy re-asserts itself into the Coda, which alternates between 3/2 and 4/2 time signatures together with descending chromatic triplet passages in the strings. Out of this the full orchestra joins to re-assemble the “motto theme” on the movement’s last page in the score.
2nd movement. Scherzo. Prestissimo – Allegretto – Prestissimo
Now in F major and with a time signature of 1/1, the movement is essentially in 3 sections. A sustained 4-bar chord leads into chattering crochets, out of which a rising and falling 23-note dotted crotchet theme is entrusted to the woodwind. This is replied to by a rising 4-note minim theme in the lower strings and trombones. This leads to a new syncopated episode marked “appassionata ed energico” and heard in the lower strings, in unison. The syncopation becomes more involved, resulting in the string theme becoming more fragmented, until the chattering crochet opening episode re-asserts itself. This in turn leads directly into a re-statement of the syncopated episode, now heard in the woodwind. The strings take on an accompanying role with more dotted crochets. As the movement proceeds the brass and strings assume a more prominent role in presenting the “fragmented” moments.
The music rapidly calms, and leads directly into the movement’s “Trio” section, a serene allegretto in 6/4. After 2 bars the solo oboe initiates a romantic cantabile theme, to a broad accompaniment including the harp. Clarinets and flutes now take over, with the accompanying harmonies enriching bar by bar until the theme is firmly in the lower strings. The whole orchestra then throws in its weight.
Within the space of a further 3 bars, Borodin elevates his music into the movement’s third section with a return to the dash and verve of the opening. This whisks the music forward, aided by those dotted crochets and a syncopated episode, until the dynamic subsides, heralding the coda. The coda is indicated as a more animated restatement of the earlier syncopated moments. The music begins to drift downward as with the setting sun, all energies spent.
3rd Movement – Andante
Now in the “warm” key of Db major, clarinet and harp act as precursors to a hauntingly beautiful french horn solo accompanied by strings and harp. The solo clarinet takes over, accompanied by the other woodwind including the cor-anglais.
With the movement’s principal theme clearly stated, the music is now marked Poco Animato (slightly animated) but the opening calm isn’t upset. The oboe, clarinet, flute, cor-anglais and bassoon all suggest the theme in turn, to a shimmering string accompaniment. Horn and harp do not intend to be ignored, and the music moves to a passionate but controlled climax.
Now in Ab major and 3/4 time, the character of the music becomes a little more animated. A new freer, less taught, secondary melody is introduced by violas and violins. This is accompanied by a falling chromatic figure in the woodwind and horns. The tension is increased, and rises to a further episode in A major and in 4/4 time. Robust dotted quavers from woodwind and strings dominate the proceedings, as the animated brass attempts to assert itself with snatches of themes previously heard. Towards the end of this episode violas re-introduce the secondary theme, but by now the passions have calmed. In the ensuing seven-bar coda solo clarinet, horn and harp hint at the movement’s previous episodes, and the music fades into a stillness.
The score is marked for the Finale to follow without a break.
4th movement (Finale) Allegro
Now in B major, this movement with its strong rhythmic exuberance enhanced by syncopation and an alternating time signature, conjures up scenes of medieval joie de vivre!
Out of the stillness of the previous movement’s ending violas introduce a single syncopated bar motif. This is taken up by second and first violins. Animated woodwind and brass, and then dashing string semi-quavers, herald a plethora of further single-bar motifs, tumbling down through the orchestral forces from flutes to tambourine.
From the very next bar a two-bar motif dominates, with time signatures of 3/4 and 2/4 by woodwind and violins respectively, and syncopated accompaniment from brass and lower strings. By a steady progression the music becomes fully charged, then following an impressive fortissimo climax quietens into D major. The single-bar syncopated motif leads to a new lyrical theme (akin to the horn solo of the slow movement), entrusted to the clarinets. The exuberance of the opening is held in check.
The lyrical theme is taken up by the flutes and oboes, against a syncopated string and harp configuration. This theme becomes stronger in character as it becomes fragmented, coupled with a rising dynamic. A transitional passage – marked Lento/Allegro/Lento – of just 6 bars initiates a key change. It is a two-bar motif, which can be construed as a subtle amendment to the configuration of the movement’s opening. Now, the syncopation revitalises the impetus and moves headlong into an episode in which the whole orchestra engages itself, and through further subtle key changes finds its climax on the chord of B major.
Then out of the resonance of that chord the coda quietly steps forth, with a restatement of the movement’s opening single bar motif which, with hindsight, has acted as a unifying “motto theme” throughout. The movement’s other motifs are reiterated in turn, and with the syncopated rhythm still prominent, coupled with the varying time signatures, Borodin brings his symphony to an end in shimmering glory.