Aleksander Borodin had two passions in life: chemistry and music. He was originally a professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. He called himself a “Sunday composer” because he would only compose in his free time. It wasn’t until he was 30 that he began taking composition seriously. Borodin began working on the opera Prince Igor in 1869. The opera is based on the Russian epic from the 12th century. It is the story of the heroic Russian warrior, prince Igor, and the war against the Polovtsi, a Tatar warrior tribe. The prince is captured and is seduced by the dancing slaves to join forces with the Polovtsi’s Khan. He manages to escape and returns to his wife. Borodin died 18 years after beginning to work in his opera, leaving the score still unfinished and unorchestrated. One of his colleagues, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, finished the manuscript but modified the orchestration to fit his ideas. Borodin was able to finish Polovestian Dances, which premiered in 1879. The robust melodies and rhythms, inspired by the folk music of Russia’s eastern nomads, were a huge success outside of the opera. The composition is made up of four main dances. After a whirling, modal introduction in the woodwinds the first dance introduces the “signature theme” played by the oboe and English horn. The speed picks up with a clarinet solo introducing the next dance. The third dance is very energetic in ternary meter, almost like a grand “oriental” waltz. The fourth dance is introduced by the first oboe and first clarinet in double counterpoint over an ostinato rhythm in the strings. The dances then reappear in different order (first-fourth-second) leading into an ebullient coda that brings the music to a powerful ending. Although he didn’t compose many works, Borodin left a lasting impression on the world of classical music.
Borodin - Polovetsian Dances from the opera, %22Prince Igor”.pdf