Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)
In the Steppes of Central Asia
Rimsky-Korsakov tells us that in the spring of 1879, two little-known entrepreneurs appeared in St. Petersburg and approached Borodin, Tchaicovsky, Mussorgsky and others regarding a grandiose project they had devised to mark the Silver Jubilee of Tsar Alexander II. They wanted a series of tableaux vivants called "The Genius of Russia and History," with the music for each being written by a leading Russian composer.
Most of the composers duly obliged, and Borodin's response was the symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. In the end the Jubilee project came to nothing and of course no one was paid, but some fine music saw the light and Borodin's delightful orchestral miniature subsequently became one of his most popular works.
It is prefaced with Borodin's own description of the scenario:
In the dreary, sandy steppes of Central Asia, the alien melody of a peaceful Russian song first resounds. The approaching clatter of horses and camels and the plaintive tones of an oriental melody are heard. A native caravan passes across the endless desert, guarded by Russian troops. Confident and unafraid, it follows its distant journey protected by Russian military might. The caravan moves further and further into the distance. The peaceful melodies of the Russians and the native people blend into one overall harmony, echoes of which linger over the steppes before finally fading away in the distance.
A sense of wide, open space is created by the violins playing soft, sustained harmonics in a high register. Against this backdrop the two melodies hover, voiced in the horn, clarinet and most distinctively, the cor anglais (English horn). Rhythmic pizzicati in the lower strings cleverly conjure the rolling motion of the caravan. In the Steppes of Central Asia was first performed on 27th August, 1882 under the baton of Rimsky-Korsakov.