Borodin Symphony no. 2 in B minor

performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky
(or in the other recording below by Concertgebouw under Karel Mark Chichon)

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. Despite the adage that ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’ your Second Symphony is entirely new. Nobody had done anything like it. And it is perfectly logical in structure.”…. From another source you are always lucid, intelligent and perfectly original […] work in your own way and pay no attention to anyone.

Franz Liszt

The Second Symphony proved to be Borodin’s great work. Whatever Borodin’s technical limitations as a composer, they fail to be revealed in this symphony. The power, the playfulness, the lyricism, and the liveliness incorporated into each of the movements make for a compelling gesture.

Brown, The European Symphony

Now here we are at the second symphony of Borodin’s, one of his most famous works, “considered the most important large-scale work completed by the composer himself.” Because of the attention he gave them during the six-year composition of this symphony, it is said to resemble Prince Igor and Mlada in its melodies.
The first symphony took him around five years to complete, and this second one around six years, but it seems the reasons this piece took longer were as a result of his other duties. He was not, it seems, foremost a composer. As previously mentioned, he had duties in the laboratory, the ballet, his School of Medicine for women. He published some papers and was always busy with something, it seems.
After being frustrated with a lack of recognition as a chemist, it seems he published a paper and moved on to other things.
This symphony received some attention in its semi-final version in 1876, when the Russian Musical Society (that institute that Anton Rubinstein had helped to found) expressed interest in performing the piece. Apparently, in his other careers or busy-ness to finish other things, he’d misplaced the score (can you imagine not having digital files, or even a simple copier to avoid this kind of thing?). The middle movements were eventually found, but the outer movements had to be re-orchestrated by the composer in bed during a sick spell. The work was premiered the
following year, on 10 March 1877 under Eduard Napravnik. Wikipedia says the following about that performance:

This symphony fits in the debate over the merit of folklore elements and traditional western art music values, which was a central conflict of Romantic nationalism.[10] The work was popular, but according to Rimsky-Korsakov, only enjoyed “moderate success” because Borodin had written the brass part too thickly.

That comment about the brass parts seems comical, almost petty, as if RK was trying to get in an “I told you so,” somehow about the orchestration. That same year, Borodin made a trip to Germany, where he met Franz Liszt. They played the piece in piano four-hand arrangements, and Liszt made the above comments when Borodin expressed to him that he might revise the score. Apparently Liszt had heard some of Borodin’s music and admired him, as well as this work, even having arranged for performances of the symphonies, which makes them some of the earliest Russian symphonies to gain recognition outside of Russia.
Regardless of Liszt’s encouragement, Borodin ultimately revised the orchestration and thinned out some of the brass parts that RK disliked, and RK conducted the premiere of this final version on 4 March 1879, but it was again addressed in 1886, when metronome markings and some other small changes were made before it was sent off to the printer.
So…. before we get talking about the actual music of this most famous or significant of Borodin’s works, let’s talk about the intro. The only recording of this piece I’d listened to up to the point I started writing this article was the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, included above, but I was shocked to find that almost every other recording takes the intro at a wildly faster pace, i.e. the notated tempo. The score is notated in 2/2 time with half note = 92, allegro. Granted, Rozhdy’s tempo is NOT that marked in the score, but I’ve come to like its heavy, brooding intensity. Most of the others are fast (as suggested in the score) and almost kind of burn right by those important notes (Gergiev’s recording with Mariinsky hardly even breaks the notes up). This is why I included the Concertgebouw’s performance above: that performance is more true to the score, although I prefer Rozhdy’s interpretation over the composer’s wishes. Oops.
In any case, if taken really slow, it’s heavy and ominous; if taken at tempo, it’s stormy and violent, and both seem downright tragic at a few turns. Wikipedia has a pretty thorough analysis of this symphony, and it starts something (exactly) like this:

Excluding the E natural, the opening theme is made up of an octatonic subcollection which consists of the major and minor 3rd above the tonic. The alternation between major and minor thirds is found throughout the symphony, and is based on this opening theme.

Okay, so I’m almost officially lost with that description. What you don’t have to be really familiar with theory to appreciate is the second subject. It’s a delicate string-and-woodwind passage, sweet, almost pastoral, and in great contrast with the opening. We also come to recognize rather quickly, as would be expected, that this movement is in sonata form. Since I’m not great at picking out keys and pitches and all the rest, some of Borodin’s ingenuity is lost on me. It’s a short first movement, but the effectiveness of that powerful first theme is that there is no mistaking when it comes crashing back. Instead of the typical tonic and dominant keys and returning to the home key in the recapitulation, he is all over the (key?)board with his modulations, having started in B minor and D major, but ending in the recapitulation in E-flat and C before getting back to B minor. I would never pick this out just from listening, and might be able to identify it if I really paid attention to the score, but it’s certainly an interesting thing to read about. In any case, the opening B minor theme finally returns in B minor, but (at least in this recording) at half tempo, so it feels even heavier, more dramatic, like when the monolith shows up in 2001: A Space Odyssey (is that the right thing? It’s what I think of, or else Messiaen’s statue theme from Turangalîla. I forget).  Anyway, it’s breathtaking in its forcefulness. I wonder what it sounded like before the brass thinning.
Phew. That’s over, and we’re into the second movement, the scherzo. This is probably most people’s initial reaction to the second movement, that “yeah, this must be the scherzo,” but the more you listen, the less scherzo-like it sounds. Borodin has more tricks up his sleeve here. This is one of the rare cases where a scherzo is not in triple-meter. Instead, it’s marked in 1/1 one whole beat to the bar, marked at 108. As if this wasn’t off-kilter enough, there are phrases of many different lengths, most commonly alternating four- and five-bar phrases with a few two- and three-bar phrases thrown in. If you remember some of the rhythmic personality of his first movement, the strong beats and syncopation will be unsurprising. The trio, marked allegretto, is in 6/4, and then the scherzo returns. I find all of Borodin’s choices here so interesting, from his modulations to time signatures, all of it, but RK apparently criticized the return of the scherzo in this movement, which seems puzzling. That’s pretty typical of these ternary-form scherzo movements, no? I don’t know what makes this “the weak link in the symphony.” The theme in the trio sounds familiar, reminding us of the D major theme of the first movement, but played out more fully. I like that connection, referred to in the Wikipedia article as a ‘cyclical’ element throughout the work. Whatever its purpose, it brings great unity to the work on top of the structure of each movement. The scherzo returns (it’s so cute) and the movement finishes peacefully.
The third movement, marked andante, is another great lyrical movement from Borodin, opening with clarinets and harp, then a horn solo. It’s almost kind of cliche. Vladimir Stasov, Borodin’s biographer and co-founder of The Five, claims this movement represents a Slavic minstrel on a local instrument. There are a few surprising swells of sound, but the movement generally feels fairy-tale-ish and almost literary, very exotic, with the same theme getting passed around the orchestra. This movement is in a rondo form, and about two thirds of the way through, we reach what might be the pinnacle of beauty for the whole work. It seems that D major theme that began in the first movement returns for another pass.
If the first movement was the most dramatic, the second the most playful, the third the most beautiful, then the fourth is the most celebratory and joyous. It is instantly identifiable as a collection of folksy dances or songs with lots of mixed meter and rhythm, beginning (as all ‘folksy’ ‘nationalistic’ music does?) with a pentatonic theme, then roaring into the first dance. It’s truly breathtaking. It feels like victory. It’s bright and joyful. Also there’s tambourine. And piccolo. Music people disagree on the structure of this movement, but it doesn’t matter to me; it’s varied, interesting, and thoroughly enjoyable, a wonderful way to end this symphony.
It is easily understood to be a patriotic work, one with Russian personality and expression, even if it refers to stories or themes I’m entirely unaware of. That being said, it’s clear I don’t have to be aware of them to enjoy the piece. Stasov apparently enjoyed it quite thoroughly:

According to Dianin, Stasov believed that Borodin had the knights and heroic figures of ancient Russia in mind with this piece. “The first movement depicts an assembly of Russian knights […] the Scherzo could be intended to suggest a headlong chase, but it could equally well be a festive scene […] the third movement was to have depicted Bayan, the legendary minstrel who appears in the Lay of Igor’s Campaign […] and the finale is meant to depict ‘the knights’ feast, the sound of the gusli, and a jubilant throng of people.”

Maybe? One could argue that Stasov would very much have liked the piece to be about Russian heroes and triumph, but is it really what Borodin had in mind? It isn’t unlikely, but he also didn’t actually state any of that. Oh, the perils of programmatic ideas.
So, this is a piece in which Borodin used Western ideas incredibly effectively to convey very Russian ideas, while making highly creative musical changes to the forms (modulations, rhythms, key signatures, etc.). As Brown says above, Borodin’s technical limitations fail to be revealed, which is another way of saying he played to his strengths and was a great success.
While his first symphony was nice enough, simple, enjoyable, and straightforward, it seems he was far more daring and had a much more cohesive idea for his second. It’s understandable that this work is one of the composer’s most famous. And that’s all now for Borodin, as well as for Balakirev’s Mighty Handful, although we will still hear and see more of its members later on, as they continue to live on in the history of Russian classical music. Next week is another relatively important name, whose work as an instructor likely overshadows his career as a composer. See you then.

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