Borodin Polovtsian Dances Program Notes
Alexander Borodin, on the way to becoming the author of more than 40 scientific publications, was told by his chemistry professor that he should think less about music: “You can’t hunt two hares at the same time.” We are lucky that his professor was wrong, although he may have completed Prince Igor had he been a more focused composer: he spent the last 18 years of his life composing and abandoning the opera.
Vladimir Stasov, the music critic who had invented the term “The Mighty Handful,” suggested Borodin use the 12th century story of Prince Igor’s failed military expedition as an opera subject - Igor lived 1141-aprroximately 1202, and was a member of the Rurik dynasty, which led Rus’ between 882 until they were replaced by the Romanovs after 1610.
The Overture shows the clear influence on Borodin (as well as the other four of the “Mighty Handful” of Russian composers to which Borodin belonged) from their compositional forbear, Mikhail Glinka (1804-57), whose Ruslan & Lyudmila is filled with the same kind of energy, contrasted with lyrical Russian melodies (presented here in the horn then later, the cellos). The overture’s brooding Andante beginning hints at the unsettled nature of Russia before Prince Igor’s leadership, and his royal qualities are illustrated by the fanfare writing in the brass when the Allegro section begins.
The Polovtsian Dances take place in the camp of the victorious Polovtsians. Their leader, Khan Konchak, treats the captured Prince Igor and his son to entertainments – a ballet of slaves accompanied by a chorus singing the beauty of their lands, among other things. (Outside of operatic performances, the chorus is usually omitted.) Accompanying the colorful dances and costumes, Borodin uses great orchestral colors.
Borodin’s sudden death came from a heart attack at a raucous party in Moscow, where he’d just danced a waltz, wearing Russian national dress (dark red shirt, blue trousers, high boots). Destiny was less kind to the victorious Polvtsians – although they beat the Russian Prince Igor, their empire would be crushed less than thirty years later by Genghis Khan and the Mongols
Born: November 12, 1833, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Died: February 27, 1887, Saint Petersburg, Russia