Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Alexander Borodin (1833 - 1887)


  • [Bullet6] String Quartet No. 1 in A (1879)

    [Bullet6] String Quartet No. 2 in D (1881)

  • Alexander Borodin (1833 - 1887)

    String Quartet No. 1 in A (1879)



    Chemistry professor Alexander Borodin of the Medico-Surgical Academy of St. Petersburg was both a research chemist and devoted teacher. He was also a tireless advocate for womens rights and education in Tsarist Russia, as well as a poet and writer. His generosity with his time and resources was legendary, and if he could be faulted it would be for not being as generous with the time he allotted for his musical compositions. For his small output is some of the most beloved music to come out of 19th century Russia, and one could only wish that there were more of it.


    Although overshadowed by the popularity of his second string quartet, the A Major Quartet is nonetheless as worthy of our attention. Unlike the second work which was completed in an uncharacteristically short time, the A Major was started in 1873 but not completed until 1879. This extended gestation period was partly due to the fact that he was at work on his magnum opus Prince Igor, but more importantly, Borodin was searching for a particularly Russian response to the string quartet medium where no tradition existed. His solutions are interesting, especially in the light of todays program. In music as well as architecture, the Russians were attracted by the Latin spirit. However, for the string quartet, Borodin gravitated to the Austro-German tradition, Beethoven in particular. In fact, the principle theme of the first movement is actually a theme by Beethoven, from the finale of his B Flat Quartet, Opus 130. Encore Recordanza!


    Another interesting feature of the Quartet is the use of folk music. The andante movement is based on the folksong Song of the Sparrow Hills, which also appears in Prince Igor. The first performance was given by the Quartet of the Russian Musical Society on December 3, 1880.

    1992-93 Season, Program III, Sunday December 13, 1992

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    Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)

    String Quartet No. 2 in D (1881)



    Moguchaya Kuchka, "The Mighty Handful", "The Five", (or "The Mighty Clique" as they were called by their detractors), shared a vision and a mission: to produce a Russian music based on the Russian experience and identity, and rid Russian music of pale, stale imitations of Italian opera, German formalism, traditionalism and Leider. Of the five that took on this mission, only one, M. Balakirev (1837-1910), was a professional musician. Two were military men, N. Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) was a naval officer, C. Cui (1835-1918) was a fortification expert, and the fourth, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), was a civil servant. The problem of maintaining creative activity under the burden of career demands was most acute in the case of the fifth member of this group, Borodin. He was principally a professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg, as well as a research chemist who made contributions in the field of catalysts and precipitates.


    Borodin wrote in a letter, "As a composer seeking to remain anonymous I am shy of confessing my musical activity. This is intelligible enough. For others it is their chief business, the occupation and aim of life. For me it is a relaxation, a pastime which distracts me from my principal business, my professorship. I love my profession and my science. I love the Academy and my pupils, male and female, because to direct the work of young people, one must be close to them."


    Besides the demands of his scientific and teaching professions, Borodin championed the cause of equal education for women, and women's rights. Thus, he was constantly in demand as a speaker, and called upon frequently to attend meetings for the feminist cause. Dmitri Shostakovich, who saw Borodin as a very gifted composer and rated his works highly, said bitterly that the feminists should have raised an monument to Borodin. "He would get one of those monuments too, because he plunged headlong into women's education and spent more and more time as he grew older on philanthropy, primarily for women's causes, and these butchered him as a composer.....Borodin's apartment was a madhouse.....he always had a bunch of sick relatives living with him, or just poor people, or visitors who took sick and even went mad.....That's how a Russian composer lives and works. Naturally there was always someone sleeping in every room, on every couch, and on the floor. He didn't want to disturb them with the piano. Rimsky-Korsakov would ask: 'Did you transpose that section?' 'Yes. From the piano to the desk.' And then people wonder why Russian composers write so little."


    Despite this Borodin managed to write music that lives in the operatic, orchestral, and chamber music repertory. The String Quartet No. 2 is one of the most beloved works in the entire quartet literature, and, unlike his other works, was composed in only two months during a summer holiday. It has been suggested that it was written as a special anniversary present for his wife.


    The Quartet's popularity is undoubtedly due to its warm amorous lyricism and beautiful melodies. Concerning the melody in the second movement, Borodin explained that he "attempted to conjure up an impression of a light hearted evening spent in one of the suburban pleasure gardens of St. Petersburg." The melody is probably most familiar to American audiences as being the basis for the song Baubles, Bangles and Beads from the musical Kismet. The third movement, Notturno, was also used in Kismet as the song, And This Is My Beloved. This movement is even more popular in the string orchestra transcription, and that arrangement has far outnumbered recordings of the complete Quartet.

    1991-92 Season, Program III, Sunday February 23, 1992

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    All original text on this page Copyright 1997 by Joseph Way