Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), Another of the Mighty Handful

I've discussed members of the Russian Mighty Five, five mostly self-taught composers from the Romantic Period who turned away from German music in favor of a more Russian form of great music. One of them was Balakirev, about whom I wrote earlier. Borodin remained an amateur for most of his career, teaching science and chemistry in order to pay for his musical hobbies. In my collection I have two of his symphonies (one, the third, was only a sketch, and was orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov, another of The Five), some music from his opera Prince Igor, and his two string quartets.

His Symphony No. 2 in B Minor wasn't a smashing success at its premiere, but a reworked version with changes suggested by another member of The Five, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, did win some acclaim for Borodin. I've found in listening to it personally that I have trouble finding something to hook onto structurally. I suspect it will take more listening in order to find my own way into the work. From an auditory distance, I like the symphony, with its exotic sounds and conversations between orchestral sections.

I find the quartets a little easier to understand, perhaps because they seem to stick closer to Western structure, though, with them, too, I can't seem to find my way into the works.

Borodin's most famous works come from his opera Prince Igor, with music from the Polovtsian Dances used in the musical Kismet. The most recognizable part is the "Stranger in Paradise" theme, as well as other dances from the opera. Sarah Brightman has recorded a version with lyrics, as has Tony Bennett and numerous others.

Wikipedia has an explanation of who the Polovtsians were.

I find it hard to say much more about the music, especially given the citations I've given for Borodin's biography as well as his small output of music. There's none of the music I don't like, and I look forward to spending more time with it. I suspect such Russian Nationalist music is an acquired taste, and what little I do get out of it makes me want more.

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