About this Recording
8.572786 - BORODIN, A.P.: Symphonies Nos. 1-3 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)

Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin (1833–1887)
Symphonies Nos. 1–3


Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin was born in 1833, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, assuming, according to custom, the surname and patronymic of one of his father’s serfs. His mother later married a retired army doctor and he was brought up at home in cultured and privileged surroundings. Here he was able to develop his early interests in music, in the course of a general education that won him entry in 1850 to the Medico-Surgical Academy in St Petersburg. His public career was as a scientist, from 1864 as a professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy, and involved him in teaching and in research. In common with a number of contemporaries, he was only able to indulge his interest in music in his spare time, a fact that delayed his progress and left, at his death in 1887, a number of incompleted projects, to be assembled and finished by his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had resigned his commission in the navy to devote himself entirely to music, and by Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil Alexander Glazunov.

The nineteenth century saw the development of nationalism throughout Europe. In Russia there was an intellectual reaction to the westernizing tendencies initiated by Peter the Great a century before, and in all the arts a move towards the creation of something specifically Russian. In music opinions were divided between a group of nationalist composers, the so-called Mighty Five, led by Mily Balakirev, who had enjoyed a measure of professional training, and including, in addition to Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, the expert on military fortification César Cui and the ex-army officer turned civil servant Modest Mussorgsky. These nationalist composers gloried in their own relative amateurism, opposing strongly the establishment of professional conservatories in St Petersburg and Moscow by the Rubinstein brothers, whom they regarded as representative of “German” music. The succeeding generation was able to provide a synthesis between these two rival movements, joining the professional training of the conservatories to Russian sources of inspiration.

Borodin attempted three symphonies, the last of which he never finished. The first, in E flat, took him five years to complete, occupying his intermittent attention from 1862 until 1867. It was given a poor trial performance under Balakirev in March 1868, but was more successful when it was played in the first Russian Music Society concert of 1869. Borodin had met Balakirev first in 1862 and fallen under his influence, of which the First Symphony was a more or less immediate result. The symphony was his first sustained exercise in composition and was subjected to the often contradictory criticism of his new mentor at every step.

The E flat Symphony opens with a slow introduction that contains the germ of the Allegro first subject. An E flat major second movement scherzo shows a debt to Mendelssohn, a favourite with Borodin, while the B major trio has about it more the exotic world of Borodin’s unfinished opera Prince Igor. The D major slow movement is dominated by a melody originally intended for the cor anglais, until the intervention of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, who recommended the use of the cello in its place. The symphony ends with an energetic finale which, in spite of its characteristic second subject, owes much to German tradition and was described by Gerald Abraham as second-hand Schumann, a judgment as harsh as the same writer’s view of the scherzo as second-hand Berlioz, deficiencies for which he regarded the original first movement as ample compensation.

The Second Symphony was started in 1869 and completed seven years later, the period of its composition coinciding very largely with Borodin’s intermittent attention to work on Prince Igor. The music is thoroughly Russian in mood and the composer himself suggested in conversation with Stasov, the polymath mentor of the group of the Mighty Five, that the first movement represented some gathering of Russian warriors, the slow movement a Bajan and the last a crowd in festive mood. The opening movement is dominated by its forceful and ominous first theme. The Scherzo, slightly altered in its opening on the suggestion of Balakirev, who was always ready with advice, however inconsistent, shifts a semi-tone higher; the repeated note C on the horns serves as the introduction of the new key of F major, much as the G flat chord that opens the Andante, with its moving horn solo, shifts the tonality to D flat, changing to C sharp minor at the start of the colourful B major finale. The symphony, in fact, is remarkable in its technical novelty, within the traditional symphonic framework, and constitutes an orchestral counterpart of Prince Igor, Polovtsian Dances notwithstanding.

The Third Symphony, of which only two movements exist, uses as a second movement a scherzo in a characteristically uneven rhythm scored originally for string quartet, written in 1882, and orchestrated, as Borodin had intended. The first movement, reconstructed by Glazunov from the composer’s sketches and from his own phenomenal memory, had actually originally been intended as a string quartet, a fact that goes some way to explaining its relatively spare texture and gentle mood. For the Trio Glazunov took music that the composer had written for the first act of Prince Igor but had later rejected.

Keith Anderson

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