Symphony No. 2
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn); 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 17, 1925, Sir Henry Wood conducting.
"Russian music," wrote Alexander Borodin to his supporter the Countess de Mercy-Argenteau of Belgium, "is not the kind that makes for success." Modest, unassuming, an amateur musician and professional chemist, Borodin was an unlikely man to be considered an early master of Russian music, but a master he was, as the work opening this program confirms.
The illegitimate son of a Russian prince, Borodin was registered at birth as the lawful son of one of the prince’s serfs. He received an excellent education that included the study of several languages and music lessons on flute, oboe, cello, and piano; at age 23 he graduated from honors from the Academy of Medicine in St. Petersburg with a doctorate in chemistry. He spent his professional life in medicine as a surgeon and chemist.
Clearly a gifted musician, the young Borodin pursued chamber music with a passion and began composition lessons with Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev, an established composer who attracted a number of talented young composers to his camp, including Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, and César Cui. The five were eventually dubbed "Moguchaya Kuchka" (literally, the Mighty Heap). Together, they created a truly Russian sound, harvesting the folk music and liturgical traditions of their native soil for inspiration.
Borodin’s first serious compositions, such as his First Symphony, were heavily influenced by Balakirev, who wrote of the First: "every bar of it was criticized and overhauled by me. . ." Rimsky-Korsakov, who became Borodin’s friend at the time of the completion of that work‘s first movement, was delighted and bewildered by the sound of it all. Though the symphony was dismissed by the press, the Russian public was enthusiastic at the premiere; it encouraged Borodin to produce a second symphony, as well as other works.
His teacher and friends were scarcely involved in the composition of Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 (1869-76), a work which is one of his most distinctive and original. It was a dismal failure in its 1877 premiere and, at Rimsky-Korsakov’s suggestion, Borodin revised it and launched it again in 1879, this time to great acclaim. At the time, Borodin called it his "Heroic Symphony."
The opening statement, which begins and ends the first movement (Allegro), is bold and triumphant, clearly influenced by Russian Orthodox chant (though some writers say that the tune was inspired by forgotten composer Robert Volkman’s First Symphony, which created a sensation on its premiere in Moscow in 1864).
The jocular, succinct second movement (Scherzo) shows Borodin’s talent for orchestral color. Indeed, as biographer Gerald Abraham said, "in the so-called colouring. . .produced by orchestral combinations, he has few superiors."
The third movement is ethereal and transparent, at times lyrical and almost sweet, other times bold and brash. Its flowing melodies feature clarinet, horn, and strings. The Finale is exuberant and optimistic, ebbing and flowing like a gigantic celebration, but always informed by the rhythmic vitality and the melodic innocence of Russian folk dance.
Perhaps Sir Henry Hadow best summed up Borodin’s legacy: "No musician has ever claimed immortality with so slender an offering. Yet if there be immortalities in music, his claim is incontestable."
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He teaches music at Loyola Marymount University.