Aleksandr Porfiryevich Borodin
Polovetsian Dances

Born: 31 October/12 November 1833, in St. Petersburg
Died: 15 February/27 February 1887, in St. Petersburg

{Biography} {The Polovetsian Dances} {Bibliography}


Calendar fun first of all. The calendar put in place by the Romans (and revised under Julius Caesar) was reformed under Pope Gregory XIII in the sixteenth century to keep dates in alignment with the actual trajectory of the sun. Catholic countries adopted it first, with Protestant and Orthodox countries much slower to change. Russia remained under the Julian calendar throughout the nineteenth century and only switched to the Gregorian in 1918. Thus, the day that Borodin was born was called October 31 in Russia but November 12 in much of the rest of the world.

Borodin was the bastard son of Prince Luka Stepanovich Gedianov and his mistress. Following custom, he was baptized as the son of one of Gedianov’s serfs, Porfiry Iovovich Borodin, and was thus technically a serf himself. Despite this, he was brought up in privilege, living first with his birth parents and then with a stepfather after his mother married an elderly doctor. Borodin’s father and stepfather both died while he was still a child, fortunately after he had been freed from serfdom.

A musical childhood, including some attempts at composition, was followed by entrance into medical school in St. Petersburg. Although Borodin eventually qualified as a doctor, his professional life was as a chemist, teaching and conducting research. Music, though, remained a major interest, with a turning point reached in October 1862, when Borodin met the composer Mily Alekseyevich Balakirev (1837-1910). Balakirev’s work is rarely performed today (his “oriental fantasy” Islamey for piano, his Symphony #1 and his symphonic poem Tamara are the best-known works), but in the mid-nineteenth century he was the leader of an important musical circle that Borodin soon joined. Here Borodin was in the company of other talented individuals who, like him, lacked formal training in composition but who were committed to a nationalist agenda in music, setting them at odds against those Russian musicians they considered too westernized (Tchaikovsky eventually being foremost in the enemy camp).

Borodin’s colleagues in Balakirev’s circle included the mechanical engineer César Cui (1835-1918), Nikolai Andreievich Rimsky-Korsakov, and Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky; together this group is sometimes referred to as “The Five” or “The Mighty Handful” or similar nicknames. Cui is known today more for his music criticism than his compositions (the salon piece Orientale is the one most likely to be heard), but Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky each deserve a brief interlude (they wrote neat stuff that you will want to listen to).

Nikolai Andreievich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

Like the other members of the Balakirev circle, Rimsky-Korsakov had little formal training and a non-musical day job; he was in the Russian Imperial Navy. But he was ultimately the most productive of the group and eventually taught composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory; Stravinsky was his most famous pupil. He was a brilliant orchestrator who wrote an important treatise on the subject and finished or revised many important works by his colleagues, including Borodin’s Prince Igor and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Night on Bald Mountain. His best-known symphonic works are Scheherazade, the Russian Easter Overture, Capriccio espagnol, and Symphony #2 (“Antar”). Operas include The Golden Cockerel (the best known; the Bridal Procession is a famous excerpt), The Maid of Pskov, Snegurochka (The Snow Maiden, which includes The Dance of the Tumblers), and Sadko (including The Song of India), as well as Mlada, Christmas Eve, Mozart and Salieri, The Tsar’s Bride, Tsar Saltan (which includes R-K’s best-known work, The Flight of the Bumblebee), Kashchei the Immortal, and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. Songs include Hebrew Song; Oh if thou couldst for one moment; Eastern Song: Enslaved by the Rose, the Nightingale; The Clouds Begin to Scatter; Silence Descends on the Golden Cornfields; and the cycles In Spring, To the Poet, By the Sea.

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

Born to a wealthy family, Mussorgsky was for a time a dandified officer in the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard. He resigned his commission to dedicate himself to music, but was forced to take a governmental position when his family lost its money after Russia freed the serfs in 1861. Although the most talented of all of his circle, he became an alcoholic and died shortly after his forty-second birthday. Instrumental works include the symphonic poem Night on Bald Mountain (of Fantasia fame) and the wonderful Pictures at an Exhibition, written for solo piano though better known in the orchestration by Ravel. Mussorgsky’s masterpiece is the phenomenal opera Boris Godunov (with truly fabulous choral sections); it exists in several versions. Mussorgsky’s own (second) version is starkly powerful, but is heard less frequently than the (also excellent) second re-orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov. Other operas include The Fair at Sorochinsk (completed and orchestrated by Cui, among others; the best-known excerpt is the Hopak from Act III) and Khovanshchina (first completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, and mostly known through three excerpts: the prelude, the entr’acte before Act IV, Scene 2, and the Dance of the Persian Slaves). Mussorgsky was also a brilliant writer of songs; his output there includes the three cycles Songs and Dances of Death, Sunless, and The Nursery, as well as individual works such as The Seminarist, The Classicist, The Song of the Flea, Hopak, Night, Gathering Mushrooms, Pride, The Goat, Where art thou little star?, Cradle Song, and others.

Back to Borodin. Joining Balakirev’s circle intensified Borodin’s commitment to music, though for the rest of his life his ability to find time for composition fluctuated greatly depending on his scientific duties. Prince Igor (where the Polovetsian Dances come from) especially suffered from Borodin’s day job; it was begun in 1869 but was still unfinished at the composer’s death eighteen years later. One thinks with sadness of that famous saying, “chemia brevis; ars longa” (chemistry is short; art long). Science being what it is, someone else would eventually have made the same discoveries as Borodin, yet no one but him could have written his works. Indeed, Borodin himself gradually moved away from original research toward supervision of others because chemists in Western Europe had superior facilities and financial resources (although—three cheers—he was important in the support of the first women medical students in Tsarist Russia). But his major musical works remain all too few: the beautiful Second Symphony in b minor, the symphonic poem known as “In the Steppes of Central Asia,” the Piano Quintet in c minor, the String Quartet #2 in D Major, with the famous “Nocturne” as its slow movement, a series of lovely songs, and the opera Prince Igor.

The Polovetsian Dances

This is the work of Borodin’s that is most often performed today (though sometimes without chorus—boo! hiss!) The dances are from Prince Igor, but before discussing this opera and the dances, a little background on nineteenth-century Russia is in order.

Russia has long had a complex and ambivalent relationship with the West. A policy of intentional Westernization was begun by Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), with the result that by the beginning of the nineteenth century French was the preferred language among the aristocracy (note how in War and Peace Pierre tells Ellen “Je vous aime” after they are engaged) and foreigners played an important role in musical life; Italian opera was far more popular than Russian (and remained very important—Verdi’s La forza del destino had its debut in St. Petersburg).

The person most responsible for changing the position of Russian opera was Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka (1804-1857), who used Russian speech, Russian themes, and Russian melodic material, and wrote the first opera in Russian to be sung throughout. This work, A Life for the Tsar (also known as Ivan Susanin; premiered 1836) and his other opera, Russlan and Ludmila (premiered 1842), served as inspiration for the Balakirev circle and others and established him as the father of the Russian nationalist school of composers (Glinka’s major orchestral works include Kamarinskaya, Night in Madrid, and Jota aragonesa—the last two obviously not dealing with Russia).

Following Glinka’s lead, the cause of Russian opera was taken up by composers such as Aleksandr Sergeyevich Dargomîzhsky (1813-1869), who was famous for both Rusalka (premiered 1856) and The Stone Guest (based on Pushkin’s version of the Don Juan legend and completed by Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov after the composer’s death) Mussorgsky, whose Boris Godunov had its first performance in 1874, and others. Before Borodin’s death, four operas by Cui, three by Rimsky-Korsakov, and seven by Tchaikovsky reached the stage. Borodin himself worked on four different operatic projects, of which Prince Igor is by far the most important.

Incomplete at Borodin’s death, Prince Igor lacked a finished libretto (Borodin was writing his own). The opera premiered in 1890 in a version cobbled together (including new music and new orchestrations) by Rimsky-Korsakov and his pupil Glazunov. Rimsky-Korsakov had already worked on a piano/vocal score of the opera and helped prepare the Polovetsian Dances for a performance during Borodin’s lifetime. As it turns out, the Rimsky/Glazunov version did not even include all of Borodin’s music, and bits and pieces of the omitted music continue to appear in freshly-orchestrated versions in modern performances of the opera. Because of the haphazard nature of Prince Igor’s origin and the very problematic nature of the remaining sources (it is a major musicological mess), it is unlikely that we will ever have a definitive version of the work.

The plot is taken from a twelfth-century epic poem The Song of Igor (Russia’s first classic work). To summarize very briefly, it is the story of the Russian Prince Igor, who goes with his son Vladimir to wage war on the Tartar tribe of Polovetsians (this transliteration is the old-fashioned one; most modern writers use “Polovtsian.”) Both Igor and his son are captured. Eventually Prince Igor escapes and returns home to deal with the evil brother-in-law who has taken over during his absence. Vladimir remains among the Polovetsians to wed their leader’s daughter.

The Polovetsian Dances occur at the end of the first of two acts to take place in the camp of the Polovetsians. The dances are intended as entertainment for Igor and Vladimir, who are treated with honor and respect. In the lyrical first section, we are slavewomen singing with love of our lost home (so yes, it’s a love song, but love for a country, not a person). When the full chorus comes in, we are Polovetsians praising our leader, the Khan (think of Ghenghis Khan and Kubla Khan; this guy is Konchak Khan, whose name we eventually get to sing over and over as Khan Konchak). The bass solo that follows (that the chorus basses sometimes sing since orchestras don’t often hire a soloist just to sing fewer than seventeen measures of music) is Konchak himself, offering the sopranos and altos (in their capacity as slavewomen) as sexual partners to Igor and his son (and you thought this was just pretty music). Then we sing again as Polovetsians with more praise for the Khan. When the tenors and basses come in after the galloping horses music (okay, it’s not horses; it just sounds that way), they continue their praises (are these people sycophants or what?)

When the women enter again (soon followed by the men), we’re back to being slaves longing for home (the lyrical theme) and then we revert to Polovetsian guise (following the return of the galloping horses) to reiterate what a swell guy the Khan is and to order the slaves to dance. Schizophrenia, anyone? But regardless of identity issues, this is great fun to sing,


English-language books devoted to Borodin are relatively rare, though a large percentage of the total bibliography is concerned with the problems Prince Igor poses. A short study that deals mostly with the composer’s music is Gerald Abraham, Borodin: The Composer and His Music (William Reeves, 1927). Chemist-singers may want to peruse Aleksandr Porfir’evich Borodin: A Chemist’s Biography by N.A. Figurovskii and Yu. I. Solov’ev (English translation published by Springer, 1988), readily available in the “Biographies of Famous Chemists” section of your local library.

War and Peace

One would hardly think that this most famous of Tolstoy’s novels would need any cheerleading, especially from a musicologist, but this is a book more acknowledged than read. It’s easy to see why. The book is extremely long (my Signet Classic paperback clocks in at 1455 pages), it lacks the structural perfection of Anna Karenina, and some spots are admittedly rather slow going. There are a zillion characters, give or take a few, and they all (surprise!) have long Russian names with patronymics. It’s hard to tell them apart, at least at first, and the opening scene doesn’t help at all. It’s a social gathering at which many of the participating characters are unimportant, with the first words spoken by someone who is an extremely minor character. Tolstoy would never get this book published today.

And that would be a shame, because it’s really wonderful. You just have to pace yourself and approach it differently than you would a book for the beach. Go buy a copy—you will get your money’s worth—and ease into it slowly. The chapters are short; read a few at a time and don’t expect it to evolve into a page-turner (there’s lots of “what is the meaning of life” stuff). Just let it unfold without rushing it and you will be drawn inexorably into the world of early nineteenth-century Russia as it encounters Napoleon. And it doesn’t hurt to think about “what is the meaning of life?” from time to time.

Here are the really, really, important characters (imagine little fanfares when you first find them in the book): Pierre Bezúkhov, Natasha Rostova and her brother Nikolai and cousin Sonya, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and his sister Marya. There, that wasn’t hard, was it? The next important group is the wicked Kuragin family (Prince Vasily, his son Anatol, and his daughter Ellen); you will also run across Boris Drubetskoy as well as Dolokhov and Denisov fairly often. Of course these names are all transliterated from the Cyrillic, so they might be spelled differently in your edition.

So go read the book. And if you can read Pierre’s encounter with Natasha at the end of Book II without tears in your eyes, well....

For an enjoyable spoof of Russian novels in general and War and Peace in particular, rent the old Woody Allen movie Love and Death and have a good laugh (and see if you recognize the background music—we’ve sung some of it).