Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)
Suite from Prince Igor
ii. Chorus of the Polovtsian Maidens
iii. Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens
iv. Polovtsian March
v. Polovtsian Dances
Borodin's largest-scale composition during the 1860' and 70's as the opera Prince Igor, on which he worked intermittently for 18 years but never finished. His interest in opera had almost certainly been sparked by Mussorgsky's work on his own opera, Boris Godunov. The flame was further kindled by Vladimir Stasov, who in April, 1869 hit upon the idea of an opera based upon the mediaeval Russian nationalistic epic The Tale of Igor's Campaign, which addressed itself to the struggle of Russian princes against hostile Polovtsian tribes. Borodin was excited by the subject and the jubilant Stasov began inundating him with an endless supply of source materials. Stasov felt that the subject exactly matched Borodin's musical make-up - essentially lyrical and marked by a strong leaning towards Russian orientalism - and thought that Borodin would, through this vehicle, create a worthy successor to Glinka's opera, Russlan and Ludmilla.
Unfortunately, within a year Borodin's enthusiasm had waned, and it was only due to the constant cavilling of his friends that the opera gradually took shape. Anecdotes abound relating to Borodin's faltering progress on the opera. Once, for example, Rimsky-Korsakov asked him whether he had written anything that day. "Yes," Borodin replied with complete earnestness, referring, as it transpired, to some correspondence he'd completed.
When Borodin died, little of the third act had been composed and the Overture had never been written down. It fell to Glazunov to complete the missing act from the composer's sketches, and it was also he, who thanks to a phenomenal musical memory, was able to reconstruct the Overture from his recollection of Borodin's improvised performances at the piano.
The Chorus of the Polovtsian Maidens and the ensuing Dance open the second act of Prince Igor and reflect Borodin's researches into Hungarian folk music, deemed necessary by the fact that the Polovtsians, when later driven North by the Mongols, integrated with the Magyar tribes and exerted a significant influence on the culture that became Hungary's. The music given to the soprano soloist and women's chorus is as poignant as the words they sing:
Starved of water, in the heat of the mid-day sun, the flower withers and dries. The sun will set, night will come, the heat of the day will pass. Dew will fall, nourish the earth with its moisture. Our hapless heart is like the flower starved of water. Like the little flower beneath the dew our heart will be revived.
The short, lively Dance that follows was first performed on 3rd December, 1888; the orchestration was by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Polovtsian March was written in 1874 and also orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov after Borodin's death. It was first heard on 5th November, 1887 at a concert devoted to the memory of Borodin. (This programme also included the premiere of the Overture in Glazunov's reconstruction.) The March opens the third act and signals the arrival of the Polovtsian Khan Gzak, whose victorious troops are returning with Russian captives. This recording, unusually, includes the sizeable off-stage band and men's chorus called in for the full score
Our army is coming home. Glory to our army! Gzak comes from his victory! Glory to Khan Gzak!
The Polovtsian Dances, which conclude the second act of the opera, were written in the summer of 1875. As we might expect, however, they were left un-orchestrated. Late in 1878, Rimsky-Korsakov announced the Dances for inclusion in a "Free Music School Concert" planned for early 1879. He had already rehearsed them with the chorus and a rehearsal pianist, and a full orchestral score was now needed urgently so that the orchestral parts could be generated in time for the performance.
"In despair, I took Borodin to task," Rimsky-Korsakov relates. "He wasn't pleased about it either. Finally, losing all hope, I offered to help him with the orchestration. So he came to my place one evening, bringing the barely started score of the Polovtsian Dances with him, and the three of us - for Liadov was there too - sorted it into sections and hastily began to orchestrate it to the end. For the sake of speed, we worked in pencil not ink. We worked on into the small hours, and when at last we were finished, Borodin covered the sheets of the score in a thin layer of gelatine so that the pencil marks would not rub off. To make the sheets dry in time, we hung them up like washing on a string line, stretched across my study. In this ignominious way the piece was coaxed into readiness and, finally, sent off to the copyist."
In the opera, the Polovtsian Khan Konchak commands his slaves and retainers to entertain Prince Igor, who is now his captive. In the opening andante, the maidens sing:
Fly away, our native song, on the wings of the wind to our homeland. There, beneath the burning sky, the air is full of sweetness. In the valleys the roses bloom resplendently, and the nightingales sing in the green forests.
This gives way to a full chorus, allegro vivo, one of the most exciting moments in the entire choral repertoire:
Sing songs of glory to the Khan! Praise him! Glorious is our Khan! Our Khan Konchak!