In exploring the world of Alexander Borodin the last few months, I’ve noticed that while his music is as packed with wonderful emotion and lyricism as any of the Russian Romantics, his music doesn’t have the same epic scale. Borodin is more content to say what he has to say in half the time that other Russians often use, and that is in no way a bad thing, because it creates in Borodin an intimacy that might not be found in Tchaikovsky’s bigger symphonies. When I listen to Tchaikovsky, it’s like entering a giant sprawling city; with Borodin, it’s like following two people through just a small part of that city. Sometimes they just talk, other times they kiss, other times they dance. Borodin’s focus seems tighter, more controlled.
The Symphony No. 2 in B minor is a perfect example. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth takes somewhere around fifty minutes, give or take, to hear. Borodin’s Second is done in about half an hour. For all its grand Romanticism and its big orchestra and all that, Borodin’s Second is done in just a little longer than it takes to hear Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.
Like many of Borodin’s important works, the symphony took several years to complete because of constant demands upon the composer’s time. It sprang from roughly the same time period as Prince Igor, Borodin’s unfinished opera that gave us the Polovtsian Dances, and thus the Symphony has some of the same sound. The first movement is heavy and portentous, dominated by a thumping motif that sounds ominously Slavic in nature. In the second movement, Brorodin writes a scherzo that takes place in several different meters and tempi. The third movement is the slow movement, with a wonderful song-like theme for the clarinet (where would clarinetists be without the Russians, I wonder), and the fourth movement is pure triumphant dance, a release of pent-up energy that will be contained no longer.
I find in just about all of Borodin an infectious optimism and warmth, and very little of the typical Russian “brooding” that one hears so often in Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. Borodin’s music is filled with a love of his homeland and a yearning for its legends and heroic tales (stories of which, I must admit, I know almost nothing).
Here is Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 in B minor.
Next week: Huh. I actually have no idea!