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The Cat's Pajamas

The MHS Review 238 Vol. 3, No. 4 • April 16, 1979

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David M. Greene

When Borodin came along in 1833--a year that also produced Brahms--there was hardly a Russian composer around...


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When Borodin came along in 1833--a year that also produced Brahms--there was hardly a Russian composer around, except for the lonely figure of Glinka (who happened to be in Berlin at the time), and Dargomizhky, who was still no more than a young man-about-­town. He was thus two years older than Cesar Cui, the next oldest of the moguchkaya kuchka or "Mighty Handful" (often wrongly called "The Five")

Borodin was the bastard son of a Georgian prince named Gedeanishvili (who, under­standably, preferred to be called Gedeanov), and of the young and wealthy wife of a doctor. One of the handy things about having serfs was that one could saddle them with one's mistakes, so the baby was registered as the legitimate son of one named Pofiry Borodin. He was pampered by his mother, and educated at home. By the time he was thirteen, Sascha had picked up German, French, English, and flute-playing, and had written a polka entitled Helene after a transitory flame. Later he was given piano lessons and was steeped in German classics and romantics, and taken to hear Gungl conduct more of the same. Meanwhile he was teaching himself cello and how to make fireworks. No wonder that in 1850 they let him into medical school, although his transcript showed not a single "A"; in fact, he didn't have a transcript. There he fell in love with chemistry and graduated ''with exceptional laude." Then followed a period as an army surgeon and then a period (beginning in 1859) of further study in western Europe, where he fell in love with Liszt, Wagner, and a young lady named Yekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova (whom he married in 1865). Together they toured Germany and Italy (where they played organ duets in the duomo at Pisa and where Borodin was inspired to composition.) Back in St. Petersburg he was appointed to the staff of the medical college, and spent the rest of his life teaching, researching, reading wretched examinations, and writing papers on things like the action of ethyl iodine on hydrobenzamide and the condensation of the aldehyde of valerian. He composed on vacations and in his spare time, and finished even less than his colleague Mussorgsky. At midnight on Feb. 27, 1887, wearing the dress of a Russian peasant at a physicians' masquerade ball, he dropped dead.

At the time, Borodin's third symphony was on the drawing board. (Glazunov completed it, as he did several other Borodin fragments, but no one seems to cry "foul" as they do with Mussorgsky.) The first symphony was a fairly German affair, but, written in the 1860's, it was a pioneering effort. The second came a decade later, and is, on the other hand, one of Borodin's most Russian works. Considering its history, this is not surprising. Pleased with the reception of his first effort, the chemist-composer started hacking away at it around 1869. Suddenly he was seized with the urge to write an opera. Two years earlier he had seen his farcical pastiche, The Heroes staged at the Bolshoi, but a serious follow-up on Pushkin's The Tsar's Bride (a story later used by Rimsky-Korsakov) failed to jell. Now he proposed to go to work on a drama based on the medieval heroic poem, The Lay of Igor's Campaign. (Igor, a real twelfth-century prince, lord of Novgorod­ Seversk, now in the northern Ukraine, set out to sweep the southern steppes of the nomadic Polovtsy or Kumans. He was captured and the expedition was a disaster, though he later escaped.) After six months of work on this project, Borodin declared it impossible--' 'too static'' --and gave it up. A good deal of the material he had written was now cannibalized for the symphony. He completed it in 1876, but the premiere had to be delayed six months while he located the score of the two outer movements, which he had mislaid. The audience hated it, but Borodin's friends thought it--and especially the scoring for brass and percussion--the cat's pajamas.

The "Polovtsy March" is a splendidly barbaric affair, said to have been inspired by an account of a particularly savage execution in Old (pre-Datsun) Japan. The symphonic poem, In the Steppes of Central Asia, is the only other independent orchestral work that Borodin completed. Written to accompany one of a series of tableaux depicting Russian Achievement, it depicts the approach of a caravan and its disappearance over the horizon. According to the official blurb, which might come from this morning's Pravda, its safe progress is assured by a mighty escort of Russian soldiers, and conquerers and conquered blend their voices in songs of peace. Doesn't that get you?

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