Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (1833-87) was a physician and chemist by profession. He published scientific papers and made notable discoveries. But today he is mostly remembered for a little hobby he dabbled in: composing music. He wrote an important opera, Prince Igor, plus a pair each of symphonies and string quartets. The musical Kismet was based on some of this music. Borodin also left behind a symphonic poem and the torso of a third symphony, which along with Prince Igor had to be completed by others after his sudden death.
Though music was only a sideline for him, and though his career was all too short, Borodin exerted a considerable influence over younger composers, including Sibelius, Debussy, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Ravel. He was the only member of Balakirev's coterie whose symphonies remain in the standard repertoire. Even if you're not aware of knowing any of his music, you have probably heard the song "Strangers in Paradise" from Kismet, based in turn on the "Polovtsian Dances" from Prince Igor. His music is noted for its richly colored harmony, Central Asian-flavored exoticism, Russian nationalist gestures, and lush romanticism.
His second and last completed Symphony, in b minor, was written over a period of seven years and completed in 1876. He had to redo his orchestration of the first and last movement when their original manuscripts were lost prior to the work's first performance in 1877. Thanks to the support of Franz Liszt, this became the first Russian symphony performed outside of Russia. Borodin revised the work several times, right up to its publication in the year before his death.
Movement I is an Allegro in sonata form. It begins with a menacing theme you won't forget any time soon. This theme, vacillating between B Major and b minor, immediately establishes the work as one of the great masculine gestures in symphonic literature. The brass section gets lots of play, beginning in the transition to the extremely lyrical and sensitive second theme. Keep your ears pealed for this theme, for versions of it appear throughout the symphony. First heard in D, it comes back for the recap in E-flat (the enharmonic equivalent of D-sharp), underscoring the movement's driving conflict between B Major (with a D#) and b minor (with a D-natural). The development takes these themes, especially the first one, through numerous evolutions, building them up to heroic dimensions. When you hear it through to its shattering conclusion, you'll be thinking: "This isn't just pretty good for an amateur. This is an amazing, world-changing feat of sheer genius!"
Movement II is a very fast Scherzo in the remote key of F. Beginning with a kind of anguished scream, the main Prestissimo is a good-humored piece full of quirky rhythms and asymmetrical phrases. The contrasting Allegretto presents a sweet, gentle, lyrical melody with perceptible similarities to the second theme of Movement I. The codetta of this central episode sounds comically bloated and heavy. After a slightly awkward transition, the Scherzo returns. Listen for that bloated tuba again as this movement winds down toward its quiet close.
The slower third movement is essentially a rondo evoking an ideal age of medieval valor, romance, and artistry. It begins with a clarinet singing gently over the accompaniment of a harp. Other instruments, notably the horn, take up the chant. Alternating episodes generate contrasting moods, including a grim climax around the 4-minute mark that may remind one of a striking transition passage in the first movement. Here gorgeous, romantic melodies share living-space with moments of threat and doom, themes of noble courage with shrugs of elegiac lassitude. The movement ends with a return to the beautiful melody that set it on its way.
The Finale is a loose sonata. Maybe. Or maybe it's just a collection of dances dressed up like one. Whatever is under all those glittering silks and fluttering scarves must have come from one of those Russian-dominated regions with a -stan at the end of its name. By turns playful, passionate, and enticingly perfumed, the movement swirls by in a brilliant display of cultural zest. And once again, you're left thinking not "Wow, not bad for a chemist," but just plain "Wow!"
Here is Piotr Borkowski conducting the first movement of this work in Seoul, with the Korean Symphony Orchestra.