Borodin – Music from Prince Igor

by Max Derrickson

Alexander Borodin   (b in St. Petersburg, 1833; d in St. Petersburg, 1887)
Music from Prince Igor
Polovtsian March
Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens (#8)
Polovtsian Dances (#17)


Between Russia and Chinalies a fantastic expanse of land that rises in great geological staircases up to the “Rooftop of the World” in Nepal.  In Borodin’s time, one could travel through these “steppes” that are the high desert of Eurasia, and come back with wondrous stories to tell.  To the Imperialist Russia of the 19th Century, the steppes were a land of mystery, riches, or, at the very least, more land to conquer.  The steppes captured the imagination of artists and composers as a stairway leading to a faraway Far East of wild and exotic unknown.


In the 12th Century of Borodin’s Prince Igor opera, however, the steppes were hardly magical but a rather deadly place to be indeed.  The invading nomadic hordes that preceded the advance of the Mongols and Genghis Khan were brazenly sacking, raping and pillaging one Russian town after another.  Against these invasions, it was the duty of the Russian aristocracy in those days to drive them back.  Prince Igor Svyatoslavich rose to the occasion, leaving his lovely wife in 1185 so he could deal a blow to one of the tribes, the Polovs, who were led by Konchak Khan.   The events that follow, however, are not the typical epic’s tale of victory and heroism:  [. . .]


The “Music from Prince Igor” is comprised of excerpts from this opera: the Overture, the March of the Polovs from Act III, and the exquisite Polovtsian Dances from the end of Act II.  There are two remarkable aspects to this wondrous piece.  The first is that its composer, Borodin, was by trade a research chemist and professor, and yet he was rightly included in the Mighty Handful of Russia’s Nationalist composers.  His work in chemistry earned him an international reputation; specifically his research in aldehydes (associated with the well known compound, formaldehyde) led him to discover a reaction in chloride molecules which, until the 1940’s, was still called the “Borodin reaction.”  Music for Borodin was but a hobby.


The second marvel is how astoundingly gifted Borodin was in this hobby.   [. . .]