Music: Alexander Borodin - Second Symphony - Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Dir. Karel Mark Chichon - Links to more AB

Posted by Ricardo Marcenaro | Posted in | Posted on 10:21

Borodin Second Symphony 
LIVE Concert

Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest o.l.v. Karel Mark Chichon / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

Borodin: Tweede symfonie / Second Symphony

Symphony No. 2 in B minor by Alexander Borodin was composed intermittently between 1869 and 1876. It consists of four movements and is considered the most important large-scale work completed by the composer himself. It has many melodic resemblances to both Prince Igor and Mlada, two theatre works that diverted Borodin's attention on and off during the six years of composition.


Although he had a keen interest in opera, Borodin's scientific research and teaching duties as an Adjunct professor of Chemistry in the Medico-Surgical Academy at St. Petersburg since 1874 interrupted his composition of the Second Symphony. As a result, this symphony took several years to complete.

    On visiting him I seldom found him working in the laboratory which adjoined his apartment. When he sat over his retorts filled with some colorless gas and distilled it by means of a tube from one vessel into another, I used to tell him that he was ‘transfusing emptiness into vacancy’. Having finished his work, he would go without me to his apartment, where he began musical operations or conversations, in the midst of which he used to jump up, run back to the laboratory to see whether something had not burned out or boiled over; meanwhile he filled the corridor with incredible sequences from successions of ninths or sevenths.[1]

Immediately after the successful premiere of his first symphony in E-flat conducted by Mily Balakirev at the Imperial Russian Music concert in 1869, Borodin began writing the Second Symphony in B minor.[2] That summer, he left off work on the piece in order to work on Prince Igor (Knyaz Igor), an opera based on a 12th-century epic "the Story of Igor's Army," suggested by his friend and first biographer Vladimir Stasov. Borodin suddenly decided to abandon Prince Igor in March 1870, criticizing his own inability to write a libretto that would satisfy both musical and scenic requirement.[3] He told his wife, "There is scarcely any drama or scenic movement… Anyhow, opera seems to me an unnatural thing… besides I am by nature a lyricist and symphonist; I am attracted by the symphonic forms."[4]

Soon after setting Prince Igor aside, Borodin returned to the B minor Symphony, assuring Stasov that the "materials" created for the opera would be used in the newly revived symphony. According to Stasov in an article contributed to the "Vestnik Evropi" in 1883, Borodin told him more than once that in the first movement he wished to depict a gathering of Russian warrior-heroes, in the slow movement the figure of a bayan—a type of Russian accordion, and in the finale a scene of heroes feasting to the sound of guslis—an ancient plucked instrument.[4]

He composed most of the first movement in April 1870, and he wrote it out onto a piano score a year later, in spring 1871. In that same year he sketched the Scherzo and Andante. That summer he orchestrated the first movement, and in October he drafted the finale.[5]

Borodin's work on the symphony was again interrupted when the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Stephan Gedenov, asked him to collaborate on an extravagant opera-ballet Mlada with other members of Vladimir Stasov's "mighty little heap," namely Cesar Cui, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.[6] In his usual fashion of composing, Borodin borrowed heavily from earlier works, in this case Prince Igor. The show was ultimately cancelled because of production costs, and Borodin once again turned to the B minor Symphony.[7]

A new interest took his attention away from the composition once again in the fall of 1872 as the Tsar Alexander II's government passed legislation allowing women to take advanced medical courses. As an advocate of the new campaign, Borodin became the founder of a School of Medicine for women, where he taught several courses. Despite these distractions, Borodin finished the piano score in May 1873.[8]

The following academic year (1873–74), more and more aggravated that he was not receiving support or recognition for his scientific work, he published his last paper on aldehydes and turned to teaching; it was at this time that he became director of the Medical-Surgical Academy's laboratory facilities. Meanwhile he also took up Prince Igor again and worked on orchestrating the final three movements of the symphony, although this work was not ultimately completed until 1875.[8]

In the autumn of 1876, the Russian Musical Society showed an interest in performing the symphony; however, Borodin was disconcerted to find that he had lost the full score.[8] Although the middle movements were eventually found, he had to reorchestrate the outer two movements while sick in bed. The work was premiered 10 March 1877[9] under the baton of Eduard Nápravník.[8] This symphony fits in the debate over the merit of folklore elements and traditional western art music values, which was a central conflict of Romantic nationalism.[10] The work was popular, but according to Rimsky-Korsakov, only enjoyed "moderate success" because Borodin had written the brass part too thickly.[8]

Borodin's relationship with Liszt also had impacted his symphonic writing. Later in 1877, Borodin traveled to Germany in order to enroll some of his chemistry pupils in Jena University. While in Germany, Borodin visited Liszt in Weimar where the two played through both of Borodin's symphonies in four-hand piano arrangements. Liszt had been an admirer of Borodin's music and he arranged performances of Borodin's symphonies, making them the first Russian symphonies to be received abroad. Regarding Borodin's attempt to revise his score, Liszt said,

    Heaven forbid! Do not touch it; alter nothing. Your modulations are neither extravagant nor faulty. Your artistic instinct is such that you need not fear to be original. Do not listen to those who would deter you from following your own way. You are on the right road. Similar advice was given to Mozart and to Beethoven, who wisely ignored it. Despite the adage that ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’ your Second Symphony is entirely new. Nobody had done anything like it. And it is perfectly logical in structure."…. From another source you are always lucid, intelligent and perfectly original […] work in your own way and pay no attention to anyone.[8]


The symphony is scored for the following orchestra:

    2 flutes
    2 oboes (one doubling on cor anglais)
    2 clarinets
    2 bassoons

    4 horns
    2 trumpets
    3 trombones

    3 timpani
    bass drum
    cymbals (in the finale only)



Score and edition

In 1879 Borodin revised the orchestration of the symphony and thinned out the heavy brass parts. The premiere of this final version took place 4 March 1879 under the baton of Rimsky-Korsakov at a Free School Concert.[11] Borodin became occupied with the symphony one last time in 1886, while preparing the manuscript full score for the printer. He made a few refinement changes suggested by Rimsky-Korsakov, who also provided the metronome markings based on the successful second performance.

The Symphony

The B minor Symphony is arguably the most important large-scale work completed by the composer himself, and is considered to be one of his greatest.[8] It has many melodic resemblances to both Prince Igor and Mlada, which were two theatrical works that diverted Borodin's attention away from the B minor symphony between 1869-75.[8] According to the account of Borodin's friend Nikolay Kashkin, the symphony's striking and abrupt opening theme originated from the abandoned chorus of Polovtsians,[8] and the Soviet biographer Serge Dianin notes that there is a common thread present in all three pieces.[12] According to Dianin, "it is for this reason that we find certain similarities in the themes Borodin uses in these works." [13] The relation to the heroic world of Prince Igor led Stasov to nickname the work Bogatirskaya simfoniya (Heroic symphony).[14]

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Music: Alexander Borodin - Second Symphony - Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - Dir. Karel Mark Chichon - Links to more AB

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