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String Quartet No. 2 in D

January 14, 2024: Goldmund Quartet

A medical doctor and professor of chemistry by profession, Aleksandr Borodin was what he modestly called “a Sunday composer.” Consequently he produced a relatively small body of works, leaving a number of them incomplete at the time of his fatal heart attack at age fifty-three. Yet his remarkable handling of musical materials shows him to be one of the most original composers to come out of Russia in the nineteenth century.

As a child Borodin had loved to pick out tunes on the piano by ear and had been given flute lessons. He loved to play four-hand piano arrangements of symphonies with his friend Mikhail Shchiglev, and taught himself to play the cello (Shchiglev similarly learned violin) in order to play chamber music with friends. Once his scientific pursuits began, he continued to play chamber music as relaxation. 

Borodin composed his String Quartet No. 2, the last major work he completed, while on holiday in July and August 1881 in Zhitovo outside Moscow. Its first performance took place on March 9, 1882, at a concert of the Russian Music Society in St. Petersburg. (Some sources give a premiere date of January 26, 1882.) Dedicated to Borodin’s wife, the Quartet nostalgically and lovingly reflects their first months together in Heidelberg.

The Quartet has become Borodin’s most frequently performed work outside of, perhaps, his Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. Some of its music became especially popular in the form of the Broadway show Kismet, which borrowed not only from the Polovtsian Dances and other Prince Igor music, but from the Quartet’s lively Scherzo for “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” and the lyrical Notturno for “And This Is My Beloved.”

The first movement puts sonata form on parade in a sense, as if to say, “Even chemists know their Classical forms.” This has no negative connotation now, but in the late nineteenth century the “Mighty Handful” (or the “Russian Five”)—Borodin, Balakirev, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cui—had taken naturalism to new levels and Borodin’s traditionalism sometimes received bad press. Nevertheless, Borodin’s Second Quartet sounds much more like a forerunner of Debussy and Ravel than the works of other contemporaries such as Brahms. Borodin featured the cello, his own instrument, in presenting the movement’s songlike main theme, quickly taken up by the first violin, said to represent his wife. The first violin also leads off the equally lyrical second theme, which also includes a martial portion. 

Borodin’s effervescent, waltzlike Scherzo also shows his knowledge of sonata form, thwarting the listener’s expectation of a middle trio by presenting a development section instead. The merry movement takes its leave with an increasingly ethereal coda. 

    The famous, poignant Notturno also highlights the cello with the initial presentation of the luxurious theme, followed by the first violin sweetly singing the tune in higher register. The second theme, with its resolute rising scale decorated by trills, does little to alter the movement’s lyrical impression. Borodin’s display of canonic techniques throughout this movement is striking for its unobtrusive Romantic unfolding.

In the finale Borodin’s “naturalist” tendencies come to the fore with a folk-like melody that serves almost as a motto. He begins with a slow introduction in two questioning phrases that provides a wonderful foil for the ensuing energetic section as well as furnishing its main thematic material. A tender second theme reminds the listener of the work’s overall lyricism. Borodin achieves a brilliant climax and ends suddenly with four emphatic chords.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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