It is amazing that an amateur musician should have inspired these words: "So far as traditional symphonic form is concerned, the master craftsman of the last quarter of the nineteenth century was not Brahms but Borodin."1

Whether Aleksandr Porfiryevich Borodin (1833 – 1887) was indeed possessed of anything approaching the musical genius of his close Teutonic contemporary Johannes Brahms is open to a great deal of question. But whereas a Brahms symphony sensitively played is a profound experience to the listener, a Borodin symphony is still a source of joy. The beauty of a Borodin symphony is, compared to Brahms, rather superficial — yet there is real beauty in Borodin. The qualities of Borodin's symphonies are such that it seems that if they ever really caught on to the public ear, they would be perennially popular. They have all the likely ingredients — pretty tunes, exotic harmonies, brilliant orchestration — that have made the works of his compatriots Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov among the most overplayed in all the literature. Indeed, a few of Borodin's own works, most notably the "Polovtsian Dances" from his opera Prince Igor, his short orchestral work In the Steppes of Central Asia, and his String Quartet #2 in D major, have been immortalized, aided by the Broadway smash Kismet, which made his tunes more palatable by adding words (English, of course) to them (admittedly, the Prince Igor tunes did have Russian lyrics to start with). This analyst feels that the symphonies — only the second of which is occasionally heard in the concert hall — have as much or more to offer from a musical standpoint and from the standpoint of the use of elements traditionally appealing to the masses (the two are not totally mutually exclusive, after all!).

Borodin, this king of amateur musicians, born in St. Petersburg, Russia on October 31, 1833 (Old Style [as are all dates in this paper unless otherwise indicated]), was the illegitimate son of Luka Gedianov and Andotya Konstantinovna; Gedianov had the child declared the legal son of his servant Porfiry Ionovich Borodin.2 Alexander was a bright but quiet child.3 At about ten years of age, he first developed an interest in what was to be his calling for life. His love for this pursuit inspired him to teach himself. Soon it was evident that he was quite gifted, and he proved it at the age of fourteen: he built a chemistry lab. At sixteen he entered the Academy of Physicians.4 Remarkably expert in chemistry, he also excelled in botany, zoology, anatomy, and crystallography. He graduated cum eximia laude in 1855.5 In 1856 Borodin was appointed medical practitioner at the Second Military Hospital,6 and in May, 1858, defended his dissertation for the degree Doctor of Medicine, entitled On the Like Action of Arsenic and Phosphoric Acids on the Human Organism.7 Borodin soon came to realize that his skill at the operating table left something to be desired, so he went full time into chemical research. In 1858 he published his first paper on chemistry, and he was to publish scores more of important treatises in the field.8 In December, 1862, he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the St. Petersburg Academy of Medicine, a post which he held for most of the remainder of his life.9 Perhaps his greatest contribution to the scientific world was his program — developed in the face of constant opposition — of medical studies for women.10

Yes, Borodin was a chemist whose pursuits in the field have been duly recognized in the annals of science and medicine. Yet today he is chiefly remembered not for his profession but for his avocation.

About the time young Aleksandr showed his first interest in chemistry, he first tried his hand at composing: he wrote a Polka in d minor at the age of nine.11 He began flute lessons at about ten,12 and attempted to teach himself cello at about the same time.13 During his youth, music always occupied a spot in his heart, but musical pursuits always took second place to scientific ones. While at the Academy, he played and wrote chamber music.14

In 1856 Borodin first met the young Modest Mussorgsky. At the time, the latter, a military man of foppish character, seemed primarily concerned with charming the young ladies with his piano playing. Yet Mussorgsky did take note of Borodin's more than passing interest in music.15 When the two happened upon one another two years later, their friendship was sealed. At this time Mussorgsky introduced Borodin to the new trends in Russian music by playing a few of his own works. Borodin, whose idol up to the time had been Mendelssohn, found the oriental sounds of Mussorgsky's music strange and puzzling. But after a bit of experimentation with the new style, Borodin grew not only accustomed to it but rather fond of it.16

In 1862 Borodin met Mili Balakirev, the "spiritual leader" of the new school of Russian composers of which Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cesar Cui were the prime exponents. Borodin at this time heard a piano transcription of Rimsky-Korsakov's First Symphony and found it stylistically quite similar to his own recent work.17 This inspired him to try his own hand at composing in the symphonic medium: he immediately set to work on his First Symphony in Eb. The work, brought continually to Balakirev for criticism,18 was not to be finished for several years — a period during which Borodin was kept busy by his chemical research and also by his marriage in 1863 to the pianist Yekaterina (Catherine) Sergeev Protopopova.19 In 1864 he met Cui and the composer Vladimir Stassov; in 1865 he met Rimsky-Korsakov.20 Along with his new friends, Borodin began an outspoken revolt against the "German party" — those elements of western European musical culture that refused to admit the new Russian music into the repertoire.21 About this time Alexander Dargomizhsky joined Balakirev's "Handful", but he only lived to 1869.22

Borodin finally completed his First Symphony in late 1866.23 The parts and score took some two years to copy, and at a trial performance at a school, Borodin was shocked to hear that the copyist had made hundreds of mistakes. He painstakingly corrected them all and sent the symphony to Balakirev. It was premiered by the Russian Musical Society, under Balakirev, on January 4, 1869. The first movement was "received coldly," but the audience went wild at the end of the Scherzo and maintained their enthusiasm to the end. Even so, one critic, Alexander Serov, commented, "A symphony by someone called Borodin gave little satisfaction. Only his friends ... applauded him..."24

Borodin was spurred on by his success and set to work immediately on his Second Symphony in b minor.25 The symphony was not premiered until February 26, 1877, and it was a failure.26 Borodin analyzed the problem: he and Rimsky-Korsakov, in their excitement over the new possibility of chromatic passagework for brass instruments, had decided that much more was possible than actually was. The first edition of the Second Symphony was too heavily orchestrated,27 and the brass problems caused the conductor to resort to a slower tempo.28 In June, 1877, Borodin made a "pilgrimage" to see Franz Liszt. Liszt praised the Second Symphony.29 Thus heartened, Borodin lightened the orchestration and presented the symphony again in February, 1879. This time it was a great success.30

In 1884 Borodin's health, and his wife's as well, began to deteriorate.31 The Borodins, including their adopted daughters, moved to the better climate of Pavlovskoye. There Borodin worked on his Third Symphony. Some of the tunes of the Adagio, which he never finished, were from the hymns of a sect of youths in the town who opposed priesthood.32 In 1887 Borodin, who had come to St. Petersburg to do some work at the Academy, was attending a ball on February 14, when an artery near his heart burst.33 The Third Symphony was never to be finished, but Alexander Glazunov was able to prepare the first two movements for performance, and they were premiered on October 24, 1877 under Rimsky-Korsakov at the Borodin Memorial Concert.34



Borodin's symphonies abound in devices that depart from the classical norms. Of course, few symphonies written as late as the latter part of the nineteenth century conform very closely to Mozartean parameters, but the degree of Borodin's originality and his constant striving for a fresh, brilliant sound are noteworthy.

Borodin uses many kinds of orchestrational techniques in his work. On the pure – mixed continuum, Borodin would have to be placed nearer to the "pure" side. This example shows the high strings finishing their statement of a theme, and the beginning of its repeat by the woodwind choir:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo: Prestissimo


A similar example shows the strings finishing one theme, the winds beginning another:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro



Borodin often uses solos by winds, particularly in slow movements:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 3 – Andante


Here he uses a solo oboe to introduce a scherzo theme:


Symphony #3
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo: Vivo


Here is a statement of a slow-movement theme by a full section of celli:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 3 – Andante



Borodin does not use strings solo in his symphonies. In appropriate places (usually as a dynamic device), Borodin will use his full resources:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 3 – Andante



A favorite device of Borodin's is the tossing of a short rhythmic figure from one instrument to the next within one "choir" of the orchestra. Here, he does it with strings:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo: Prestissimo


here, with woodwinds:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 4 – Finale: Allegro


One of his rare examples of mixing timbres (other than in tuttis) is this grumbly theme, stated by bassoons, celli, and basses:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 1 – Adagio



Borodin's use of range tends toward extremes often enough to be noted. One of his most effective uses of extreme range is found here:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro


Borodin's texture is homophonic — melody with accompaniment — most of the time. Polyphony is infrequent — there are no fugues to be found in Borodin symphonies — but he does use simple imitation effectively:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 3 – Andante


Dynamics are achieved more often than not by the addition and subtraction of instruments, with written dynamics added to enhance the effect. Here are a crescendo:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro

and a diminuendo:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro


thus accomplished.

The harmony of Borodin's music is perhaps its most appealing element. Borodin and his Russian friends, in complete command of common-practice functional harmony, extended it along fascinating new paths.

One of Borodin's trademarks is his frequent use of modality. This is very likely a result of his borrowing of Russian folk songs, themselves inherently modal.

His Second Symphony, supposedly in b minor, begins with the pitches b - c - e - d#, which hardly makes a case for b minor. These notes might occur in e minor, but there is no suggestion of e as a tonic. B Phrygian, with a variable third, is the most likely candidate.

This theme is clearly in e Phrygian:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 3 – Andante


this one in a Aeolian:


Symphony #3
Mvmt. 1 – Moderato assai


Here is a run in B pentatonic major:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 4 – Allegro



Tonic motion within movements and between movements is free. Borodin is not likely to stay in one key for more than two or three pages of score; and modulations, often common-tone or common-chord, but sometimes quite unprepared, are usually to remote keys.

Here is a modulation from Gb major to Eb major, here analyzed as common chord:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 4 – Allegro


In this instance, the music remains in Eb for about eight bars before repeating the same modulation process to get to C major. (Note the symmetric relationship emerging — a phenomenon inimical to tonality as found in earlier music.) The movement cited in this example is in B major. To get there from C major, Borodin uses this process, notable for its total lack of subtlety:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 4 – Allegro


Borodin closes the first movement of his Second Symphony in the key of b minor. He begins the second movement in F major. In order to make the tritone modulation smooth, Balakirev suggested the interpolation of this chord35 in the brass:


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo — Prestissimo


This F# dominant seventh chord with an added minor ninth and missing fifth contains the tones f# and a# (enharmonic Bb) and thus serves as the dominant (V) in the old key, b minor; since it contains e, g, and Bb, it is also the dominant (viiº) in the new key, F major.

One curiosity of Borodin's is his habit of using the iii chord in a dominant role in major keys. This is possible because the iii and the normal dominant, V, have two common tones; indeed, the iii —> I pull is particularly strong, because the iii is simply a tonic chord with the leading tone instead of the tonic. Here are two examples of iii —> I cadences:
1)


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro


2)


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo (Trio: Allegretto)


Borodin's melodies are unmistakably Russian. This is no coincidence, for the bulk of them are based on Russian folk tunes. For example, this fragment from the song "The Terrible Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich":


shows up in the first movement of the First Symphony:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 1 – Adagio

and in the second movement as well:36


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo (Trio: Allegro)


The Russian folk tunes, like most folk tunes, tend to be fairly stable, utilizing mostly stepwise motion. They are usually flowing. A table of the primary themes of the Borodin symphonies accompanies this paper.

The Borodin symphonies are characterized by a rhythmic drive in the fast movements and a sense of rhythmic freedom in the slow ones.

Borodin uses ostinati extensively to create a feeling of driving ahead. Examples:
1)


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro

2)


Symphony #2
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro

3)


Symphony #3
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo: Vivo


A sense of meter is generally quite clear; perhaps slightly less so in slow movements than in others, however, because of the flowing quality of the slow movement themes.

Changing meter is used in a few instances. In this example, the folk song Borodin wanted to use would not naturally fall into a constant meter:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo (Trio: Allegro)


Use of an irregular meter occurs in the rustic Scherzo of the Third Symphony:


Symphony #3
Mvmt. 2 – Scherzo: Vivo


Borodin's harmonic rhythm tends to be regular and relatively fast. His music is normally organized in regular phrases.

Borodin pays homage to musical tradition in his forms: he uses the standard ones — sonata form, scherzo with trio, etc. He treats them in a unique manner, as we have seen, but the traditional divisions are there. Borodin's primary departure from common practice with regard to form is his extreme freedom with key relationships. He can always be counted on to begin and end a movement in the same key, and begin the recapitulation in a movement in sonata form in the same key as the exposition (even when, as in the Finale of the Second Symphony, the transition at the end of the development section dwells on dominant harmony not of the original key but of N of the original key!). Beyond that, nothing is sacred.

Development (not only in development sections proper, but throughout all movements) is very often by fragmentation. For example, in the first movement of the First Symphony, the ostinato figure in the timpani, shown here:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro

comes from the opening theme of the movement:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 1 – Adagio

Sometimes development is achieved through rhythmic transformation. Here is the same theme, in constant quarter notes:


Symphony #1
Mvmt. 1 – Allegro

Development is Borodin's primary option for continuation.

A brief synopsis of Borodin's three symphonies accompanies this paper.



The original paper also included:
• A one-page summary outline (Borodin's life, and some general aspects of his musical style), intended as a class handout
• "A Synopsis of Borodin's Three Symphonies" (tempo, key, and form by movement) (1 1/2 pp.)
• A catalog of "Themes in the Symphonies of Alexander Borodin" (5 pp.)
• My harmonic analysis in a few of the musical examples

These items are omitted here.


FOOTNOTES

     1 Heseltine, Philip. Quoted by Gerald E. H. Abraham in Borodin: The Composer & His Music (New York: AMS Press, 1976), p. 175.
     2 Dianin, Sergei, trans. Robert Lord. Borodin (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 7 8.
     3 Ibid., p. 9.
     4 Ibid., p. 12.
     5 Ibid., p. 13.
     6 Ibid., p. 16.
     7 Ibid., p. 19.
     8 Ibid., p. 19.
     9 Ibid., p. 40.
     10 Ibid., p. 78.
     11 Ibid., p. 10.
     12 Ibid., p. 11.
     13 Ibid., p. 12.
     14 Ibid., p. 14.
     15 Ibid., p. 18.
     16 Ibid., p. 20.
     17 Ibid., p. 40.
     18 Ibid., p. 41.
     19 Ibid., p. 42.
     20 Ibid., p. 43.
     21 Ibid., p. 44.
     22 Ibid., p. 54.
     23 Ibid., p. 46.
     24 Ibid., pp. 56 7.
     25 Ibid., p. 57.
     26 Ibid., pp. 96 7.
     27 Ibid., p. 82.
     28 Ibid., p. 97.
     29 Ibid., pp. 98 9.
     30 Ibid., pp. 106 7.
     31 Ibid., p. 135.
     32 Ibid., pp. 137 8.
     33 Ibid., p. 153 4.
     34 Lloyd-Jones, David. Foreword to Alexander Borodin: Symphony No. 3 in a minor, finished and orchestrated by Alexander Glasunow (London: Edition Eulenburg, 1962), pp. IV V.
     35 Dianin, p. 202.
     36 Ibid., p. 185.

BIBLIOGRAPHY


Abraham, Gerald E. H. Borodin: The Composer and His Music. New York: AMS Press, 1976.
Borodin, Alexander. Symphony No. 1 in E major (with foreword by David Lloyd-Jones). London: Edition Eulenburg, 1961.
–––––. Second Symphony, b minor. London: Boosey & Hawkes, n.d.
–––––. Symphony No. 3 in a minor, finished and orchestrated by Alexander Glasunow (with foreword by David Lloyd-Jones). London: Edition Eulenburg, 1962.
Dianin, Sergei, trans. Robert Lord. Borodin. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.