The illegitimate son of an Armenian prince, Borodin was a member of the medical profession as well as a distinguished Professor of Chemistry, who published important research papers on the group of organic chemicals known as aldehydes. He worked tirelessly for students’ rights at the St. Petersburg medical school and also founded a School of Medicine for women. Science is my work and music is my fun, he is reported to have said. In his somewhat limited spare time, as well as composition, he looked after his asthmatic wife and cared for numerous stray cats which he rescued from the streets of St. Petersburg. His death in 1887 was sudden and unexpected when he dropped dead at a party.
Borodin wrote the symphonic sketch “In the Steppes of Central Asia” in 1880, for an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the reign of Tsar Alexander II. It is one of his most popular works, giving a convincing picture of the approach and disappearance of a camel train in the empty desert wastes of central Asia. Quite how he achieved this is a bit of a mystery, since despite being well-travelled, he never went within 1,000 miles of the region he depicted so well!
The composer himself provided the following program:
“In the silence of the monotonous steppes of Central Asia is heard the unfamiliar sound of a peaceful Russian song. From the distance we hear the approach of horses and camels and the bizarre and melancholy notes of an oriental melody. A caravan approaches, escorted by Russian soldiers, and continues safely on its way through the immense desert. It disappears slowly. The notes of the Russian and Asiatic melodies join in a common harmony, which dies away as the caravan disappears in the distance.”
String harmonics, haunting woodwind solos and triumphant bell-like passages combine to form this fleeting musical tableau.
By Richard Thompson. Used with permission of The Brandon Hill Chamber Orchestra of Bristol, UK
Borodin - Symphonic Poem, “In the Steppes of Central Asia”.pdf