String Quartet No. 2
The illegitimate son of a Russian prince, Borodin received a wide-ranging education that made him a precocious polyglot scientist and musician. Ultimately his main technical training was in medicine and chemistry – he earned a doctorate and spent most of his adult life teaching chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy in his native St. Petersburg – but he also studied music broadly, in St. Petersburg and also on his many travels in Germany and Italy.
Not surprising, perhaps, his work list is shorter than probably any other composer of similar canonic stature and rife even so with unfinished pieces. He generally took years to complete major multi-movement works, but his Second String Quartet was begun and finished while on summer holiday in 1881. This was 20 years after he had first met his wife – they became engaged on August 22, 1861 – and the quartet was dedicated to her as an anniversary gift.
The cello was Borodin’s instrument, and it is clearly his “voice” in this radiantly lyrical work. It has the first theme of the first movement, for example, and also introduces the passionate melody of the Notturno, one of the best known and most often arranged movements in the repertory. (This theme also provided the tune for “And This Is My Beloved” in the musical Kismet, which is based on melodies taken from Borodin’s evocative works.) The fleet Scherzo reveals Borodin’s love for Mendelssohn, and the finale begins with a slow introduction in which the two violins alternate with the viola and cello in previewing coming attractions.