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Alexander Borodin had an extraordinary life. Illegitimate son of a Russian prince, he was well educated, spoke several languages, became a highly regarded professor of chemistry, joined the ‘Mighty Handful’ group of composers, and remained a happily married man until he dropped dead of heart failure at a fancy dress ball.
His fascination with the music of Beethoven and Mendelssohn caused Borodin’s friends to worry that it would undermine theirshared ideological attachment to ‘Russian’ music. Instead, he managed to develop an arresting personal style where folk-music lyricism was grounded in Germanic technique.
Much of his life as a young man was spent in Heidelberg, or travelling elsewhere in Europe; and it was in Heidelberg that he met Ekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova, a dazzling pianist with a particular fondness for the works of Schumann. Three months after meeting, they became engaged, and married shortly afterwards.
This second string quartet (dating from 1881) is dedicated to Ekaterina, and is said to be a reminiscence of those happy early days in Heidelberg some 27 years before. It was written quite quickly during a country summer holiday at Zhitovo. Other than movements from the incomplete opera Prince Igor, the Nocturne from this quartet remains Borodin’s most famous and popular work. Its haunting, nostalgic quality has appealed to arrangers for all sorts of ensembles, but the original is difficult to surpass. Much of the interest lies in the cello (Borodin’s own preferred instrument, although he was self-taught and far from being a virtuoso).
The Nocturne dominates the quartet – but the other movements are worthy of notice, too, full of poignant melodies and tasteful structures. The first movement moves through a relatively straightforward sonata form, with a small ‘long – short – short’ figure subtly linking the two subjects.
The Scherzo is lifted from its minuet origins into something more graceful and appropriate to the late nineteenth century (perhaps it is really a waltz?).
A quasi-fugal finale contrasts strongly with the Nocturne and ends the quartet with a dash of brilliance.
Sir Henry Hadow said of Borodin that ‘no musician has ever claimed immortality with so slender an offering’, and with a sum total of between 20-40 works he was not wrong. Quality, not quantity, is the essence of Borodin. In this String Quartet No. 2 we find one of his chief claims to immortal recognition, and one which – unlike Prince Igor – we know to be truly all the composer’s own work.
Symphony Australia © 1999
Reprinted with the permission of Symphony Services Australia