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Prince Igor: Extract

Borodin: ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from Prince Igor

In the nineteenth century ‘The Mighty Handful’ or ‘the Five’, as they were variously known (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov) successfully pursued careers outside music – none with greater distinction than Alexander Borodin. The illegitimate son of a Georgian nobleman, Prince Luka Gedianishvili, he was brought up in comfortable surroundings and as a child was an able cellist and pianist as well as a good linguist. His relatively small output was to no small extent the result of his rich endowment of scientific talent. (To echo Hadow’s oft-quoted phrase: ‘No musician has ever claimed immortality with so slender an offering’). Such were the demands on his time that on his sudden death his opera Prince Igor, on which he had worked intermittently for 18 years, was left incomplete. It is thanks to Glazounov’s labours and his phenomenal memory that the Overture has come down to us. Glazounov had often heard Borodin improvising and playing the overture at the piano (though Alfred Swan, reporting a conversation between Gazounov and Boris Asafiev, has stated that Glazounov’s contribution was more ‘creative’. Glazounov and Rimsky-Korsakov, who had begun editing the work during Borodin’s lifetime, did their best to put in order Borodin’s very sketchy draft for the Act III, which is occasionally omitted in performance.

Like Russlan, it was to blend epic and national elements with a generous helping of oriental colour. The action is set in the Russian town of Putivl and in the camp of the Polovtsian Tatar warriors in 1185. With the possible exception of Yarolsavna’s Lament and her Act I aria, and the Act II arias of Konchak and Igor, the most familiar music by far is the Kance of the Polotsian Maidens from Act II. (Incidentally Rimsky-Korsakov, when editing the score, entrusted the orchestration of some of them to his pupil Anatol Liadov.) Despite generally unfavouable omens and the entreaties of his wife, Yaroslavna, Prince Igor an his son Vladimir have set out on a campaign against the Polovtsians. Act I ends with news that both have been captured by the Polovtsian leader Khan Konchak. In Act I Konchak greets his prisoner as an honoured guest and offers Igor his freedom in return for a pledge of non-aggression. The act ends with Konchak ordering his Polovtsian slaves to dance for the entertainment of the guests. The Polovtsian March ends Act III: Prince Igor has escaped, and the Khan’s army sets off against the Russians.

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