Borodin: Symphony No. 2 in B minor

Symphony No. 2 in B minor


BORN: November 12, 1833. Saint Petersburg, Russia

DIED: February 27, 1887. Saint Petersburg

COMPOSED: April 1870 through May 1873. Orchestration took place in 1875-76 and a piano four-hand arrangement was published in 1878. Revisions were carried out in 1879-80 and the orchestral score was published in 1887, just months after Borodin’s death

WORLD PREMIERE: March 10, 1877. Eduard Nápravník conducted the Russian Musical Society in Saint Petersburg

US PREMIERE: February 5, 1897. Anton Seidl led the New York Philharmonic

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1917, with Alfred Hertz. MOST RECENT—December 1992. Valery Gergiev conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and 2 piccolos (1 doubling 3rd flute; the first edition used 3 flutes, the 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1st, unusually, doubling English horn, but thus it is in the original published parts), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 28 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. In May 1867, a pan-Slavic ethnographic conference was held in Saint Petersburg, and in a speech connected to a concert by Eastern-European composers, Stasov proclaimed, “May God grant that our Slavic guests never forget today’s concert, may He grant that they preserve forever the memory of how much poetry, feeling, talent, and ability there is in the small but already mighty handful of Russian musicians.” 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.

Borodin apparently began writing his Second Symphony in 1869 and concentrated on it from 1870 through 1873. During part of that time he was also busy at work on his opera Prince Igor; indeed, some of the material in the symphony seems to have begun in sketches for that opera. In the autumn of 1876, the Russian Musical Society showed interest in performing the new symphony, and Borodin was horrified to discover that his orchestral score of the first and last movements had gone missing. He had to orchestrate them anew before the piece could finally be premiered, in February/March 1877.

The first performance fell perhaps midway on the spectrum of failure and success. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his memoirs that the work’s sound came into being “principally under the influence of our talks about orchestration.” He expressed the opinion that “at this point our enthusiasm ran away with us,” and that “the B minor Symphony was orchestrated too heavily, and the role of the brass was too prominent.” In the first performance, “the whole heaviness of this method of instrumentation was brought out,” and the Scherzo was taken “at a much slower tempo than proper” in order for the French horns to manage their parts. Following the premiere, Borodin thinned out his scoring—particularly the brass parts—and the work was re-introduced in 1879, conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov, who reported that finally the Scherzo could be played at the right tempo.

Rimsky-Korsakov would re-enter the saga of this symphony eight years later. Borodin had been preparing the orchestral score for publication when he died. Rimsky-Korsakov and fellow composer Alexander Glazunov took over the final editing and proofreading. Because Rimsky-Korsakov famously created posthumous adaptations of other composers’ works—or, in the case of Prince Igor, filled in expanses Borodin left empty—it was formerly assumed that his editing of the Second Symphony was extensive. More recent investigations have demonstrated that his alterations were very slight, and that they almost entirely follow emendations that Borodin had already marked in his working manuscript.

Stasov said that Borodin had a program in mind for this symphony. The first movement would be a gathering of Russian warriors; the third, a bayan, or mythic bard; and the fourth, a “scene of heroes feasting to the sound of the gusli [a folk instrument of the zither family] amid the exultation of a great host of people.” (He gave no indication about the second movement.) The work accordingly became known as the Bogatyrskaya (Heroic) Symphony, a nickname that has by now slipped away.

THE MUSIC The symphony begins with a powerful outburst, a memorable motto that infuses the first movement. Robert Wright and George Forrest put it to use when they pillaged various Borodin scores to generate the Broadway musical Kismet in 1953. (This theme also served as the secret signal for members of the Les Apaches, a group of Parisian creative types whose membership included the young Maurice Ravel, a great Borodin fan; they would whistle the motif to each other as a greeting in the street.) “Right from the start,” wrote Cui, reviewing an 1885 performance, “the first unison phrase startles the listener with its originality and strength. The latter quality increases and reaches its upper limit after the middle section, at the return of the same phrase augmented twofold, halting on bleak, energy-filled chords.”

            The bustling Scherzo remains an opportunity for horn players to demonstrate their virtuosity in rapidly repeated notes. Its contrasting Trio section begins with the solo oboe, then clarinet, enunciating an irresistible melody redolent of Prince Igor. The third movement picks up on the lyrical spirit of the Trio music, but through a prism of still greater tenderness. The music grows in passion, reaching a magnificent climax before retreating to quietly shared ruminations among various wind instruments. Some passages of overtly Orientalist inspiration underscores the idea of the bayan, who is specifically suggested in the clarinet-and-harp phrases that open and close the movement, which cedes without a pause to the finale.

“In the first movement an atmosphere of grandeur is predominant,” wrote Cui, “whereas humor prevails in the last movement. The first movement is like an everyday picture of some solemn ritual; the last movement is a vivid, motley, varied celebration of sparkling gaiety.” Indeed, the finale does display high spirits in its energetic syncopations. At places, it almost sounds like the buoyant score for a cinematic Western, but there is something heroic in its character, too, as it brings Borodin’s symphony to a vigorous close.—James M. Keller 

"The first movement is like an everyday picture of some solemn ritual; the last movement is a vivid, motley, varied celebration of sparkling gaiety.”—Cesar Cui