Friday, February 15, 2013

Borodin - Symphony No. 2 In B Minor

Alexander Borodin led a double life as a scientist/chemist and composer in Russia in the 19th century. His output in each of these endeavors was small but significant. In the field of music he had very little formal training, especially in composition. The composition of his 2nd symphony was repeatedly interrupted by other compositions and his work in the laboratory.

The 2nd symphony is regarded by many as his masterpiece. When he visited Liszt in Weimar in 1877 they together played the symphony in a piano arrangement for four-hands. Liszt had admired Borodin's music and was instrumental in getting the first performances of his symphonies outside of Russia. When Borodin told Liszt of his plans to revise the symphony, Liszt replied:

"Heaven forbid! Do not touch it, alter nothing. Your modulations are neither extravagant nor faulty. Your artistic instinct is such that you need not fear to be original. Do not listen to those who would deter you from following your own way. You are on the right road. Similar advice was given to Mozart and to Beethoven, who wisely ignored it."

Borodin's Second Symphony is in 4 movements:
I. Allegro -  The tonic note of B is heard straight-away in unison by the orchestra, with the strings continuing the powerful tune. The orchestra continues forcefully until it reaches a more lyrical tune.  The first movement's form has caused much discussion in musicological circles, for while it resembles sonata form, Borodin weaves varied repeats (in key and modulation) of the main tune throughout the movement gives this movement a unique sound. The movement ends with a triple forte repetition of the opening theme.

II. Scherzo - Prestissimo - The second movement is written in the very odd time signature of 1/1:
The movement contains odd-shaped 5-bar phrases alternating at times with 4-bar phrases. This phrase structure combined with syncopated measures give the scherzo a tripping, comically stumbling quality. The gentle trio is in contrasting 6/4 time.

III. Andante - With all of Borodin's natural musicality of structure and form, it shouldn't be forgotten that perhaps his greatest gift was melodic in nature. This movement has some of the most beautiful music he ever wrote. It begins gently with harp and clarinet introduction and the horn enters with a gentle melody that is continued by the clarinet accompanied by other winds. There is a middle section that contrasts strongly with the gentleness of the opening, after which the music slowly begins its descent to end as it began, softly and melodiously.

IV. Allegro - The third movement runs directly into the Finale. The form of the movement can be seen as a type of sonata/rondo form but many hear it as a collection of Russian dances held loosely together. The mood is festive and continues until the opening dance returns to give a rousing finish to the work.

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