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8.223172 - BORODIN: Piano Quintet / String Quintet
Alexander Borodin's two string quartets, completed in 1879 and 1881, are milestones in Russian chamber music. Their importance lies as much in their influence on other composers as in their own intrinsic excellence. Although they appear to be Borodin's only major contribution to chamber music, they did not come into being without antecedents. Surprising as it may seem, chamber music accounts for a significant portion of his output, and the string quartets are late compositions in a body of work that comprises a concerto for flute and piano (1847, lost), four string trios (1847, lost; 1852-56, unfinished; 1855; 1850-60), a quartet for flute, oboe, viola and cello (1852-56), a string quintet (1853-54), a sonata for cello and piano (1860), a string sextet (1860-61, two movements lost), a piano trio (1860-61), a piano quintet (1862), a scherzo for string quartet (1882), and a Spanish Serenade for string quartet (1886).
In a letter dated 6 November 1884, Borodin replied to the countess Louise de Mercy-Argenteau, who had requested a list of his compositions, that his early attempts written before his meeting Balakirev in the late autumn of 1862 were but "péchées de jeunesse," not worthy of consideration. Happily composers are not always their own best critics, and the maxim is borne out especially by Borodin's assessment of his piano quintet.
While in his teens Borodin taught himself to play the cello, and thereafter he played in a number of ensembles, gaining wide experience in chamber music and an intimate acquaintance with the Western European repertoire, in general his musical training was anything but systematic, and it is significant that he considered the study of chamber music an important part of his largely autodidactic musical education.
During his student years at the Academy of Physicians in St. Petersburg, Borodin especially enjoyed the chamber music gatherings at the home of an amateur cellist, Ivan Cavrushkevich, where works of Boccherini, Spohr, Onslow and Gebel were often played. Written in 1853-54 at Gavrushkevich's suggestion, Borodin's string quintet is one of the earliest Russian chamber works of the nationalist persuasion. Its folklike propensities may well be attributable to the influence of Franz Xavier Gebel (1787-1843), a German-born Muscovite who incorporated Russian folksong quotations into his rather lightweight pieces.
More significantly, in the string quintet Borodin appears as a true successor to Glinka, whose string quartet (1824) is the most likely source of the whirling triplets that appear in Brodin's first variation in the second movement. That movement, like the corresponding section of Glinka's quartet, has a folk-based character. The choice of a minuet as the third movement is common to both works, but here Borodin was probably emulating Alexander Alyabiev's G Major string quartet (1825), with which there are decided similarities of melody and instrumental disposition. The quintet is interesting not only for the provenance of its ideas but even more so as a prototype of Borodin's later works. The six pizzicato bars that end the first movement reappear at the end of the scherzo in the second string quartet. The principal theme of the finale, based on the descending minor scale, establishes a pattern that occurs again in the opening movement of the piano quintet and repeatedly throughout Prince Igor. In the finale a dactylic rhythmic figure that Borodin adapted from Russia folk sources and made characteristically his own becomes increasingly prevalent in the scores of many other Russian nationalist composers in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Nevertheless the most apparent influence in the string quintet is Mendelssohn's. In the first movement the lyrical element is strong, and a Mendelssohnian mercuriality pervades both the dramatic, descending first subject and the ascending second theme. One cannot fail to be impressed by the fluent assuredness of the euphonious movement, in which the only weaknesses are the seams at the exposition and the development. Despite the presence of the two cellos, which ordinarily would weigh the formation toward darker colours, the tone of the quintet remains bright and clear. Borodin initially had resisted the idea of composing a quintet, doubting his ability to handle two solo parts, i.e. first violin and first cello, and to create a part for the cello that would be both beautiful and idiomatic. The second movement proves those reservations unfounded. This Russian romance with two variations achieves a fine balance of alternating solo parts in the initial statement of the theme and skillfully combines the two in counterpoint in the second variation. The third movement is a rapid, rather elfin minuet with a charming, Ländler-like trio. With a bustling rhythmic underpinning the finale again recalls Mendelssohn. In sonata-rondo form, it begins with a descending main theme, followed by a subsidiary idea. The second subject begins with an ascending flourish, and a repeat of the first theme closes the exposition and begins the development. After the two subjects are alternately developed, a slow episode in which the first cello is prominent precedes the restatement of the themes, much as they appeared in the exposition. A brief coda ends the quintet.
There is no evidence that the string quintet, though written at Gavrushkevich's suggestion, was ever played at one of his gatherings, and there is the possibility that Borodin continued to work on it later, between 1855 and 1860. No contemporary documents exist to determine its exact evolution. In any case the quintet was left incomplete. Sketches indicate that the slow movement was to have had a third variation, and if Borodin composed a coda to the finale, it was lost. The present coda was reconstructed by the Soviet musicologist Evlakhov when the quintet was first published in Leningrad in 1960.
Borodin had arranged many pieces for the cello, and he brought considerable knowledge of his instrument to his sonata. It probably dates the early summer of 1860, when he was engaged in chemical research in Heidelberg and devoted his leisure hours to chamber music. Unlike the string quintet, which adheres to the tonic F Minor with only a few excursions into the relative major and tonic major, the cello sonata (along with the contemporary, unfinished piano trio) displays a free juxtaposition of keys that marks the work of Borodin's Heidelberg years and must have horrified musical purists.
A violinist in an adjoining flat often played Bach's Unaccompanied Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001, and Borodin decided to compose a sonata based on a short theme from the fugue. Transposed to the key of B Minor, it opens the sonata. The second subject, though obviously derived from the initial theme, assumes a Russian quality that already is typical of the composer. Twice later in this movement – at the end of the development and again in the recapitulation – the listener will hear a further derivation of the second subject that is apparently the progenitor of the second subject of the second symphony's opening movement. Other material in the sonata shows a relationship to Prince Igor. The atmosphere of the slow movement is completely romantic, and though Borodin chose to entitle it "Pastorale", it seems that "Rêverie" would have been more appropriate. A more animated second section has a decidedly Russian quality; it is followed by an unaccompanied cadenza before the return of the poetic opening theme. The Bach motif heralds the finale in eight maestoso bars, and the finale proper is a brilliant presto movement in B Major.
Fragments of the autograph – the beginning of the first movement – are preserved at the Research Institute of Drama, Music and the Cinema in Leningrad, and additional material is in private hands. The musicologist, violinist and composer Michael Goldstein effected the completion from Borodin's sketches and claims authorship of about one third of the sonata. (After a fantastic career as a child prodigy, Goldstein perpetrated a colossal hoax by fabricating a symphony allegedly written in 1810 by a mythical composer named Ovsianiko-Kulikovsky. The Russians delightedly laid claim to this distinguished contemporary of Beethoven, the symphony was published and recorded, and Russian musical history was revised. Goldstein's public admission of his rather whimsical deception threw his career into a rapid decline, and he emigrated in 1964.) Borodin's sketches contain all important themes plus the entire exposition of the finale, making possible the completion of the sonata with assurance. It was published in West Germany in 1982.
In Heidelberg Borodin became engaged to Ekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova, who was being treated there for tuberculosis. Advised by her doctor to move to a warmer climate, she and Borodin travelled to Italy in October, 1861. In Pisa Borodin secured work at the laboratory of two well-known chemists, Lucca and Tassinari, which made an extended stay possible. The entries from Ekaterina's diary beginning on 22 May 1862 tell of Borodin's intensive work on the C Minor Piano Quintet, which finally reached completion on 17 July during a summer holiday at the seaside town of Viareggio.
Without doubt Ekaterina's influence had more than a little to do with the composition of the piano quintet. She was a pianist and a fervant admirer of Chopin, Liszt and above all Schumann, and she seems to have converted her husband-to-be from his earlier adulation of Mendelssohn to her own musical taste. It is reasonable to assume that Schumann's piano quintet, which Borodin had heard a year earlier, inspired him. Also, Glinka's influence, which had been temporarily eclipsed by Mendelssohn's, is once again evident in the melodies and transitions. But most important is the original and purely personal quality that heralds Borodin's maturity. It is the last work he composed before his epochal meeting with Balakirev later that year and the immediate predecessor of the first symphony. The harmonic language is still traditionally tonal, but the Russian folk element assumes its greatest prominence yet, and the form is freer than in any of Borodin's earlier compositions. In fact, the traditional formal scheme is completely reversed.
The first movement is a rondo based on two themes, the first heard immediately, the second introduced by the solo piano. They form an a-b-a-b-a structure with development or variation occurring in each section, closing with a brief coda based on the second subject. A similar a-b-a-b-a design constitutes the main body of the scherzo. The trio is built of two brief, alternating phrases, and an a-b-a-b repetition of the scherzo proper brings the movement to a symmetrical conclusion. A strong sense of thematic integration pervades the quintet, and that is particularly evident in the close relationship of the trio's first phrase and the initial theme of the first movement. Further similarities are marked in the finale. Accounting for more than half of the quintet's total length, it is the only movement in sonata form. The principal idea is a beautiful, somewhat melancholy theme, infused with Russian folk spirit. Because of tonal ambiguity analysts do not agree on what constitutes the second theme. Some classify the warmly lyrical cello melody as a transitional passage belonging to the first subject group, while others link it to the ensuing brief viola theme as part of the second subject.
Though it predates Borodin's meeting with Balakirev, the piano quintet is already close to the aesthetic aspirations of the nationalist circle. Chamber music was a genre Balakirev condemned, and it is significant that the first six pages of Borodin's autograph score bear indications in all five parts for various instruments – woodwinds, trumpet, trombone – plus occasional supplementary orchestral voices. The quintet may have been intended ultimately as a symphony.
This existence of string parts along with the autograph score, which remained in the Belayev archives until 1900, when they were donated to the St. Petersburg Public Library, indicates that the piano quintet was probably played at one of Belayev's Friday soirees early in the 1880s. It was never performed in public during Borodin's lifetime but received its première in St. Petersburg on 5 March 1912 in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. The Moscow première took place on 13 February 1915, and the quintet was at last published in 1938.
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