Borodin – Symphony No. 2 in B min. Op. 47

Symphony No. 2 in B min Op. 47 (1877)

Alexander Borodin (1833- 1887)

  1. Allegro
  2. Scherzo: Prestissimo – Allegretto – Prestissimo
  3. Andante
  4. Finale: Allegro

Borodin was the illegitimate son of a prince, and to disguise this, was given the name of a serf. However, his well-off mother ensured he had a good education, in which he excelled in both music and chemistry. He chose chemistry as a career, becoming Professor of Chemistry at the Medical Academy in St Petersburg aged 29. However he did not neglect his music. Whilst on a chemistry lecture tour he met his future wife, a talented pianist, and also came to the attention of Balakirev, who invited Borodin to join the “Group of Five” Russian nationalist composers. They aimed to produce distinctively Russian music, rather than the more traditional derivatives of the German tradition. The other three members, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, were all military officers who eventually became full-time composers. Only Borodin pursued composition alongside his successful career. Between his busy professional and social lives, and caring for his ailing wife, he still managed to produce more than 30 works, including two complete symphonies, the famous tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia and various chamber works. Unsurprisingly he never completed his ambitious opera Prince Igor, which was posthumously finished by his friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. Melodies from many of Borodin’s works were used in the 1953 musical, Kismet.

Borodin composed his rather dry first symphony with the help of Balakirev. Its positive reception inspired him to embark on a second symphony in 1871, in parallel with work on Prince Igor and founding St Petersburg’s first Medical School for Women. Conjuring up Russian folk tunes with offbeats, 5/4 rhythms and many tempo changes, this tuneful work adapted many of the themes from Prince Igor.

Borodin indicated an outline of a program for three of the movements. The first represents the assembly of Russian warriors and the preparation for war, the third  a mythical Slavic bard, and the finale a feast of heroes amidst the people’s exultation, whilst perhaps the second movement conjures the vastness of the Russian steppes.

Performed: 14 June 2015

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