Alexander Borodin: CDs & DVDs: Best CDs & DVDs of Alexander Borodin

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Alexander Borodin: CDs & DVDs - The Best CDs & DVDs of Alexander Borodin

Alexander Borodin: Overview

Alexander Borodin: Alexander Borodin (b. St Petersburg, 1 2 Nov 1833; d. St Petersburg, 27 Feb 1887).

Illegitimate son of a Gedianov prince and the sister of a St Petersburg civil servant, Alexander Borodin was given the name of one of his father's ser- vants. He received a mediocre middle-class upbringing which neglected music in favour of his other great passion, chemistry. At seventeen he entered the Academy of Physicians and after graduating he practised medicine for a time, although he had already begun to compose. His interest in music was stimulated by meetings with Mussorgsky, and his musical sympathies broadened to include Schumann and Glinka as well as Mendelssohn. At this period he travelled widely, living and studying abroad for long spells. A momentous event was his meeting with Balakirev in 1862 and his gradual absorption into the Nationalists' circle: for Balakirev persuaded Alexander Borodin that his true vocation was composing. Only four years later, however, did his first major opus appear, the First Symphony, and this had to wait until 1 869 for a first public performance.

In 1867 Alexander Borodin wrote a parody of grand opera entitled The Valiant Knights and started work on, but soon abandoned, a serious opera on Mey's The Tsar's Bride. Two of his finest ballads, The Sleeping Princess and The Song of the Dark Forest, were also written during this period, but now, as throughout Alexander Borodin's life, a variety of factors combined to reduce systematic effort at composition to a minimum: academic responsibilities and administrative duties (he was now a Professor in the Academy of Physicians), his public status as a scientist and important research chemist, and constant domestic difficulties. Thus the Second Symphony was not finished until 1871, and then only in piano score. The following year he contributed some music to Mlada, an opera-ballet composed jointly by members of the 'Mighty Handful', and in 1874 began to work again on his opera Prince Igor conceived some four years earlier; in it he incorporated material intended both for The Tsar's Bride and the unproduced Mlada. Work on the opera progressed fitfully throughout the 1870s, but it remained incomplete at the time of Alexander Borodin's death from a burst artery in the heart (as did also the Third Symphony). Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov undertook the responsibility of preparing these works for publication and performance. Apart from songs and a Miniature Suite for piano, the only other works produced during the last decade were the two string quartets (1877 and 1881) and the orchestral sketch In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880).

Alexander Borodin's output was slender, due mainly to the peculiarly trying circumstances of his life. It is however doubtful whether he would have wanted to abandon science in favour of music even had he had the opportunity, and it is true that the very breadth and diversity of interests pursued by all the members of the 'Handful' at some stage in their lives - a kind of inspired dilettantism - was in no small measure responsible for their individuality and for the new nationalist-oriented ways of thinking and feeling musically they helped to inculcate. Alexander Borodin outlived the early influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann to produce music distinguished by harmonic and rhythmic originality (chords built of superimposed fourths in the opening 'Allegro' of the First Symphony, added-note harmony in the song The Queen of the Sea already close to Delius, almost jazzy syncopations in the 'Polovtsian Dances' in Prince Igor); by bright, bold, primary colours in the orchestra; and by melodic beauties of a highly personal flavour which are greatly indebted to the Oriental as well as the Russian folk-melodies. In the Steppes of Central Asia epitomises the rift between the languid voluptuousness of the Orient and the long-suffering melancholy of Russia as voiced through their respective folk musics, and the pervasiveness of the Oriental element throughout Alexander Borodin's work - Second Symphony, Second String Quartet, the Polovtsian portions of Prince Igor - certainly argues the predominance of an Oriental strain in Alexander Borodin's lineage. This preoccupation with the exotic was undoubtedly one of the factors which attracted the young Debussy to the work of Alexander Borodin and his colleagues, and another pointer to the inbuilt vitality of Alexander Borodin's Orientalisms is the great merit and success of the posthumously-contrived musical Kismet based almost entirely on themes from his works. On the Russian side both Prince Igor and the Second Symphony are outstanding examples of the Russian nationalist aesthetic as given expression on a large canvas in epic terms.

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