Borodin was a highly respected professor of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in St Petersburg, then the Russian capital. We know him better as a Russian romantic composer. He had received piano lessons as a boy but only began taking composition lessons at the age of 29.
His composition teacher was Mily Balakirev, with whom he formed “The Five”, the other composers being César Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Balakirev had a passion for Russian nationalism and believed that Russia should have its own school of music and imparted this to “The Five”.
The passion in Borodin’s music and the unusual harmonies had a particular and lasting influence on Debussy and Ravel.
The second symphony was composed intermittently between 1869 and 1876. Throughout this period, Borodin focused on his research and teaching work. As an advocate of women being allowed to practise medicine, he was a founder of the school of medicine for women which opened in 1872.
He also found time to work on the opera “Prince Igor” and the opera-ballet “Mlada”, as well as this piece. The symphony was revised in 1879 (when the brass parts were “thinned out”) and again in 1886 when the full score was finally sent to the printers.
The first movement is in the key of B minor and is in sonata form. The dramatic opening theme alternates between major and minor thirds, a device found throughout the symphony. The second theme is lyrical and appears again in the second movement with echoes in the finale.
This theme is presented first in the key of D major (the minor third of B minor) and then (in the recapitulation) in the key of E-flat major (the major third (enharmonically) above B). This is a traditional yet innovative structure for a composer who had had little formal training in musical composition.
The second movement is unconventional. The key is F major, the most distant from the opening movement’s key. The tempo is not the usual triple meter but in one, with bars grouped mainly in fours and fives with the occasional one and two bar phrases.
The two main ideas contrast strongly – the first firmly on the beat; the second highly syncopated. The movement as a whole is structured conventionally as a scherzo and allegretto before a reprise of the scherzo. The allegretto presents a beautiful melody with the feel of a Venetian gondolier barcarolle.
The third movement is a near-rondo of alternating melodies, with the first serene theme moving around the orchestra. Borodin’s friend and biographer Vladimir Stasov said it was intended to depict a Slavic minstrel accompanying himself on a zither-like instrument, represented by the harp.
The finale is less formal in structure than the others and presents a series of Slavic dances in mixed triple and duple meter.
Borodin’s son-in-law and successor to his professorial chair, Aleksandr Dianin, described this movement as “bright and jubilant” and suggested that Borodin had in mind a happy throng of people at a knights’ feast when he wrote this.
Robyn Morgan, 2nd violin