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8.557456 - BORODIN: Prince Igor (Highlights) / In the Steppes of Central Asia
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Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin (1833–1887)
Prince Igor (Highlights)

The Five, the so-called Mighty Handful, so named by the Russian critic and librarian Vladimir Stasov, were the principal nationalist composers in later nineteenthcentury Russia, following the example of Glinka, their forerunner. Borodin, like some others of the group, followed another profession than music, winning distinction as a professor of chemistry. His work as a composer was limited by his other duties and preoccupations, and at his death he left a number of compositions unfinished, to be completed by his friend Rimsky-Korsakov and others.

Born in 1833, Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, given the name of one of his father’s serfs. He was brought up by his mother in relatively privileged cultural surroundings that brought acquaintance with a number of Western European languages and a profound interest in music, a continuing enthusiasm that at times distracted him from his increasingly distinguished work as a scientist. His activity as a composer was stimulated by his meeting with Balakirev, self-appointed leader of the group of Russian nationalist composers, and association with Mussorgsky, César Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Borodin had contributed to the collaborative operaballet Mlada in 1872, but his principal efforts were dedicated, over the years, to Prince Igor. For this he provided his own libretto, based on a scenario by Vladimir Stasov, but failing to complete the text before starting the task of composition, an omission that complicated his task. The work occupied Borodin intermittently from 1869, but was left unfinished at his sudden death in 1887. Rimsky-Korsakov and the young Glazunov took on the task of editing, completing and, where necessary, orchestrating the opera as Borodin had left it, leading to a first performance of their version of the work in St Petersburg in 1892. For this purpose they had cut a quantity of the original music. Glazunov was said to have reconstructed the overture from memory, having heard Borodin’s version of it, although the latter may only have left the very broadest hints as to what he intended. Glazunov also composed much of the third act of the completed version. A number of other versions of Prince Igor have been devised, in an attempt to restore as much as possible of Borodin’s original work.

Stasov’s epic conception, based on the allegedly early Lay of the Host of Igor, and episodes from medieval Kievian chronicles, provides the framework for contrast between the Russian Prince Igor, for which Borodin had some recourse to traditional Russian melodies and, like Mussorgsky, perhaps to speech intonations, and the medley of exotic musical elements that he associates with the Polovtsians.

The ‘musical picture’ In the Steppes of Central Asia was completed in 1880 and published two years later. It was intended as a contribution to a series of illustrations from episodes in Russian history to mark the silver jubilee of Tsar Alexander II, and depicts the progress of a caravan across the steppes, escorted by Russian troops. Borodin makes use of a Russian melody and a contrasting oriental theme, the two later combined. The work won wide contemporary popularity.

Keith Anderson

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