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Alexander Borodin

Biography

Born: 1833   Died: 1887   Country: Russia   Period: Romantic
Though far from prolific as a composer -- by day he was a scientist noted for his research on aldehydes -- Alexander Borodin nevertheless earned a secure place in the history of Russian music. As a creative spirit, Borodin was the most accomplished of the Russian nationalists composers. He had a particular gift for the distinctive stripe of exoticism so evident in his most frequently performed work, the Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Read more Igor.

The illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and a doctor's wife, Borodin enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. As a child he learned to play several instruments and tried his hand at composing, but other aptitudes directed his formal education. He studied chemistry at St. Petersburg's Medico-Surgical Academy, obtaining his doctorate in 1858 and pursuing further studies in Europe until 1862. Upon his return to Russia, he became a professor at his alma mater; but even as an academic career apparently loomed before him, he maintained a devotion to music.

Under the influence of Mily Balakirev, whom he met in 1862, Borodin became interested in applying elements of Russian folk music to works for the concert hall and stage. He joined a circle of like-minded composers -- Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Cui -- famously dubbed "The Five" or "The Mighty Handful." The influence of Balakirev in particular is at once in evident in the Symphony No. 1 in E flat major (1867). Borodin began the much craggier Symphony No. 2 in B minor in 1869, the same year he commenced labor on his most important work, the opulent four-act opera Prince Igor. While it took Borodin more than five years to complete the symphony, work on Prince Igor dragged on for decades. Borodin, who had in the meantime completed a number of other works, left the opera unfinished at the time of his death. It was completed posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov, a skillful craftsman and a particularly apt match for Borodin's colorful musical character, and Alexander Glazunov. Glazunov also completed the Symphony No. 3 in A minor, which the composer had been working on until the time of his death.

Aside from teaching chemistry and conducting research, Borodin helped found a series of medical courses for women in 1872. Such activities, as well as the poor health that plagued him in the 1880s, drained the energy that he might have devoted to composition. Still, as a part-time composer, Borodin jeft a significant oeuvre: more than a dozen worthy songs, miscellaneous piano pieces, two string quartets (the second of which contains a ravishing Nocturne often performed in an arrangement for string orchestra), and the popular tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880). He died while attending a ball in St. Petersburg on February 27, 1887. Read less
Borodin: Symphonies No 1-3 / Schwarz, Seattle Symphony
Release Date: 07/26/2011   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572786   Number of Discs: 1
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Borodin: Symphonies 1, 2 & 3 / Gunzenhauser, Csr Symphony
Release Date: 02/15/1994   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8550238   Number of Discs: 1
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Borodin: Prince Igor - Highlights / Kuchar, Et Al
Release Date: 08/16/2005   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8557456   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: In the steppes of central Asia

 

About This Work
In 1880, as part of the celebrations for the 25th year of Tsar Alexander II's reign, two producers were supposed to contribute a series of small dramas glorifying Alexander's successes. Twelve Russian composers were contacted to provide incidental Read more music for these scenes. The producers dropped out of sight before the festival, and Borodin seems to have been the only composer who responded to the call. The musical picture he wrote for the occasion, In the Steppes of Central Asia, became famous in its own right almost immediately, both at home and elsewhere.

The work is dedicated to Franz Liszt, master of the programmatic orchestral tone poem, a form to which Borodin brings a distinctly Russian slant. The program depicts a caravan of Central Asian traders, escorted across the desert by Russian soldiers. A quiet, bare high E on the violins, suggesting the desolation of the landscape, opens the work. A Russian folk song representing the military guard plays as if from a distance, first on clarinet, then on horn. The English horn then plays a lilting, oriental-inflected theme representing the native merchants, while a chromatic pizzicato accompaniment in the strings suggests the tread of camels across the desert. Each theme becomes more elaborate and louder as the trading party approaches, until finally the two tunes interweave in counterpoint, representing (in Borodin's words) "the peace-loving songs of the conquered and their conquerors join[ed] in harmony." After this climax, both themes recede, leaving the high E alone in the desert. Borodin's original program, particularly the part quoted above and a reference to the "terrible fighting force" of the Russian army, was considerably altered by the time of an 1882 performance in Moscow, as the tsar's government was ill disposed to discussing its colonial designs on Central Asia. To modern listeners, however, In the Steppes of Central Asia is simply a charming, well-crafted, exotically inflected sonic portrait.

-- Andrew Lindemann Malone, All Music Guide Read less

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