Borodin: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor

ALEXANDER PORFIRIYEVICH BORODIN

BORN: November 12, 1833. Saint Petersburg, Russia

DIED: February 27, 1887. Saint Petersburg

COMPOSED: Begun in 1869-70, with further work in 1874. Borodin worked on it by fits and starts from then until his death. The opera was completed and orchestrated in part by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov

WORLD PREMIERE: November 16, 1890. Eduard Nápravnik conducted at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg

US PREMIERE: December 30, 1915. Giorgio Polacco conducted at the Metropolitan Opera

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—August 1926. Ossip Gabrilowitsch conducted. MOST RECENT—September 1993. Herbert Blomstedt led

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, harp, and strings. The first section is orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov; the remainder of the orchestrations are Borodin’s own

DURATION: About 14 mins

THE BACKSTORY Alexander Borodin was born the illegitimate son of a Russian prince and his mistress, but following the custom in such circumstances he was officially registered as the progeny of one of the prince’s serfs. Nonetheless, the prince saw to it that young Alexander received privileges beyond what a serf might expect, with the result that he received an excellent education. Music and science especially appealed to him. He completed the degree of Doctor of Medicine at the Saint Petersburg Academy of Medicine and Surgery, where his dissertation was titled “On the Analogy between Arsenic Acid and Phosphoric Acid in Chemical and Toxological Behavior.” He became a research chemist and a distinguished professor specializing in aldehydes, which are organic compounds used as (among other things) solvents, perfume ingredients, and components employed in producing such plastics as Bakelite and Formica.

His non-working hours were given over to music—to playing chamber music, conducting ensembles, and composing a small but choice catalogue of works. In 1862, he fell into the circle of the Moguchaya kuchka, the “Mighty Handful,” a term put forward by the critic Vladimir Stasov. A rival critic, Alexander Serov, seized on the phrase and attached it to the brilliant composer-and-pianist Mily Balakirev and the group of composers who were just then coalescing around him: Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Borodin‚ widely remembered as the “Russian Five.” Only Balakirev had been principally trained as a musician. Cui, who held the military rank of general, was renowned for his expertise about fortifications. Mussorgsky was an army officer before he began composition lessons with Balakirev. Rimsky-Korsakov, scion of a military family, was a navy man; even after music took over his life, he remained for some years inspector of naval bands.

This odd assemblage of part-time composers achieved incontestable distinction. Many of Borodin’s masterworks reflect the group’s passionate embrace of folk sources, most especially his two symphonies (plus two fragmentary movements of a third), his “musical picture” In Central Asia (or In the Steppes of Central Asia, as it often called in English-speaking lands), and his opera Prince Igor (which he left incomplete at his death). Through a quirk of fate, he died an apparent peasant, just as he had ostensibly been born one; he dropped dead of an aortic aneurysm while dressed as a Russian peasant at a Carnival-Week costume party at the Academy of Medicine and Surgery.

THE MUSIC Borodin’s opera Prince Igor should have been his magnum opus. He began it in 1869, abandoned it to work on his Symphony No. 2, returned to it in 1874, and worked on it by fits and starts from then until his death. The opera was completed and orchestrated in part by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov and was first produced in 1890. Prince Igor tells a complicated story of the campaign of Igor Sviatoslavich, the twelfth-century prince of Novgorod-Seversk, and his military campaign against the Polovtsians, a Tatar tribe. The expedition turns into a disaster, and Igor and his son are taken prisoner. Borodin’s opera ends in a kind of stand-off, with Igor, who has escaped, determined to raise an army for a renewed campaign, and with Khan Kontchak, the Polovtsian leader, about to launch an invasion into Russian territories. The dances and passionately patriotic choruses of the Polovtsians—which we hear tonight in their orchestral versions—are the closing music to Act 2 of Prince Igor.—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(June 2019)