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Polovtsian Dances and Suite from Prince Igor

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Borodin’s largest-scale composition during the 1860s and 70s was the opera Prince Igor. He worked on it intermittently for more than 18 years but never finished it. His initial interest had almost certainly been sparked by Musorgsky’s work on his own opera, Boris Godunov. The flame was further kindled by Vladimir Stasov, who hit upon the idea of a libretto based upon the mediaeval Russian nationalistic epic The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, which addressed itself to the struggle of Russian princes against hostile Polovtsian tribes. Borodin was excited by the subject and the jubilant Stasov began inundating him with an endless supply of source materials. Stasov felt that the project exactly matched Borodin’s musical make-up—essentially lyrical and marked by a strong leaning towards Russian orientalism—and thought that Borodin would, through this vehicle, create a successor to Glinka’s opera, Russlan and Ludmilla.

Unfortunately, within a year Borodin’s enthusiasm had waned, and it was only due to the constant cavilling of his friends that the opera gradually took shape. Anecdotes abound relating to Borodin’s faltering progress: Rimsky-Korsakov once asked him whether he had written anything that day. 'Yes', Borodin replied with complete earnestness, referring, as it transpired, to some correspondence he’d completed. When Borodin died, little of the third act had been composed and the Overture had never been written down. It fell to Glazunov to complete the missing act from the composer’s sketches, and it was also he who, thanks to a phenomenal musical memory, was able to reconstruct the Overture from his recollections of Borodin’s improvised performances at the piano.

The Chorus of the Polovtsian Maidens and the ensuing Dance open the second act of Prince Igor and reflect Borodin’s researches into Hungarian folk music, deemed necessary by the fact that the Polovtsians, when later driven north by the Mongols, integrated with the Magyar tribes and exerted a significant influence on the culture that became Hungary’s. The music given to the soprano soloist and women’s chorus is as poignant as the words they sing:

Starved of water, in the heat of the mid-day sun, the flower withers and dries.
The sun will set, night will come, the heat of the day will pass. Dew will fall, nourish the earth with its moisture. Our hapless heart is like the flower starved of water. Like the little flower beneath the dew our heart will be revived.

The short, lively Dance which follows was first performed on 3 December 1888; the orchestration was by Rimsky-Korsakov. The Polovtsian March was written in 1874 and also orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov after Borodin’s death. It was not heard until 5 November 1887, at a concert devoted to the memory of Borodin. (The programme also included the première of the Overture in Glazunov’s reconstruction.) The March opens the third act and signals the arrival of the Polovtsian Khan Gzak, whose victorious troops are returning with Russian captives. This recording, unusually, includes the sizeable off-stage brass band and men’s chorus called for in the full score:

Our army is coming home. Glory to our army!
Gzak comes from his victory! Glory to Khan Gzak!

The famous Polovtsian Dances, which conclude the second act of the opera, were drafted in the summer of 1875 but, as we might expect, were left un-orchestrated. Late in 1878, Rimsky-Korsakov announced them for inclusion in a Free Music School Concert planned for early 1879. He had already rehearsed them with the chorus and a rehearsal pianist, and a full orchestral score was now needed urgently so that the orchestral parts could be generated in time for the performance.

'In despair, I took Borodin to task', Rimsky-Korsakov relates. 'He wasn’t pleased about it either. Finally, losing all hope, I offered to help him with the orchestration. So he came to my place one evening, bringing the barely started full score of the Dances with him, and the three of us—for Liadov was there too—sorted it into sections and hastily began to orchestrate it to the end. For the sake of speed, we used pencil, not ink. We worked on into the small hours, and when at last we were finished, Borodin covered the sheets of the score with a thin layer of gelatine so that the pencil marks wouldn’t rub off. To make the sheets dry in time, we hung them up like washing on a string line, stretched across my study. In this ignominious way the piece was coaxed into readiness and, finally, sent off to the copyist.'

In the opera, the Polovtsian Khan Konchak commands his slaves and retainers to entertain Prince lgor, who is now his captive. The maidens sing:

Fly away, our native song, on the wings of the wind to our homeland. There, beneath the burning sky, the air is full of sweetness. In the valleys the roses bloom resplendently, and the nightingales sing in the green forests.

This gives way to a full chorus, allegro vivo, one of the most exciting moments in the entire choral repertoire:

Sing songs of glory to the Khan! Praise him!
Glorious is our Khan! Khan Konchak!

from notes by Philip Taylor © 2020

Recordings

Borodin: Requiem & other works
SIGCD2094Download only

Details

No 1: Overture
No 2: Chorus of the Polovtsian Maidens
No 3: Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens
No 4: Polovtsian March
No 5: Polovtsian Dances

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