Prince Igor (in two volumes)
«Prince Igor» Opera in four acts and a prologue
(b. St. Petersburg, 12 September 1833 – d. St. Petersburg, 28 February 1887)
Alexander Porfiryvich Borodin was the child of an affair between an Armenian prince, Luka Stepanovich Gedianov, and Avdotya Konstantinova Antonova, who was 33 years his junior. Alexander (or Sasha, as he was known) was born in St Petersburg on 31 October 1833, and registered as the legal son of one of Luka Gedianov’s servants, Porfiry Ionovich Borodin. Gedianov eventually arranged a marriage for Avdotya to a retired civil servant of reasonable rank and wealth, although it was simply a marriage of convenience, and Gedianov and Borodin’s mother remained friends until the prince’s death.
Borodin was brought up with music around him, Mendelssohn being a particular favourite, and he travelled abroad many times, to artistic centres such as Berlin, Frankfurt-am-Main, Brussels as well as trips to Italy and – possibly – England. He met other young Russian musicians, such as Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and fell under the influence of Balakirev, who encouraged composition and acted as a sort of musical mentor. He also met Franz Liszt.
However, Borodin was not primarily a composer; he trained as a physician and chemist, reaching a degree of eminence in both fields. In particular, he was instrumental in founding – in 1872 – and running the first courses in Russia for female medical students. He published articles on organic chemistry, and organised assistance for poor medical students. He also became involved in a plagarism dispute in 1870 with the German chemist Kekule over Borodin’s work on the condensation of valerian aldehyde. It was against this background that he could write, «Even if I do have free time occasionally, there is never any time when I am free from worry; I must have calm if I am to get on with my music. My mind is full of other things».
The seeds of Borodin’s opera lie in a scenario sent to the composer in 1869 by the critic and historian Vladimir Stassov, which was loosely based on a 12th– century epic poem, The Song of Igor. Borodin replied that he believed everything suited his talent and artistic nature, «broad, epic themes, national elements, an abundant cast of characters, passion, drama, and all the colourful characteristics of the Orient». He immediately began to draft a libretto, but soon lost impetus and within a year the work had slowed. The problem was that, despite his earlier view, the story lacked enough dramatic action for a theatrical event. He did not resume work on it until 1874, in the meantime turning to orchestral works – the Second Symphony and the music for the opera-ballet, Mlada, which was a joint effort between Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Cui. (Ironically, much of Borodin’s contribution to Mlada was destined to be used eventually in Prince Igor.)
When Borodin did return to Prince Igor, work progressed slowly. This was mainly because the composer was foremost a respected chemistry professor and physician, who regarded composition as secondary to his profession. He once commented that, since he was best able to devote time to composition when he was unwell, friends would greet him with «I hope you are ill!», rather than «I hope you are well!».
However, his friends – particularly Rimsky-Korsakov – would not give up and managed to encourage composition by arranging for some of the new opera to be included in various concert programmes, occasionally even before Borodin had written it! The composer responded by completing, among other things, the Polovtsian Dances that now end Act 2. He may not have orchestrated them entirely himself, for Rimsky-Korsakov recalled an evening when he, Borodin and Anton Liadov worked feverishly to complete the scoring of the dances. In particular, he said that the group wrote in pencil and that Borodin coated the finished sheets with gelatine, hanging them to dry like washing on a clothes-line. But it may be that Rimsky’s memory was not entirely reliable, since the published score gives the Polovtsian Dances as one of the sections Borodin himself scored.
In the next few years, Rimsky-Korsakov acted as a sort of amenuensis to Borodin, even calling himself the composer’s «music secretary», doing what he could to encourage further work on the opera. Borodin, however, was often too busy with chemistry to comply, or else engaged on musical projects such as the Third Symphony. Inevitably, this meant that much of the opera was not orchestrated, and several sections (in particular, Act 3) were not written down in any sort of complete form.
Why did Borodin spend 20 years writing an opera that he never finished? Part of the answer must lie in the fundamental flaw, referred to above, that the storyline is simply not dramatic enough, lending itself rather to a series of grand tableaux. Borodin clearly appreciated this, and he spent much time (perhaps too much) writing his own libretto – a considerable task for a part-time composer. He also became interested in incorporating Russian folk songs into the opera, and used some vacations to visit rural communities where he collected songs from the peasant workers (one song, The Sparrow Hills, spawned a number of themes). This was an unusual practice in the 1870s; it would be another thirty or forty years before Bartok, Grainger, Vaughan Williams and others would do likewise, though on a grander scale. But it took Borodin time, and he had little of that left, for after suffering chest pains for several weeks, he collapsed at a fancy-dress ball on 15 February 1887 at the age of 53, the victim of a massive and fatal aortal aneurysm.
His friend and pupil, A.P. Dianin, had seen this coming, and had already agreed to alert Rimsky-Korsakov to anything Borodin might be writing, so that the friends could take advantage of the young Anton Glazunov’s extraordinary memory by getting Borodin to play the music at the piano. This at least ensured that the Overture and parts of the Third Act were rescued, as well as the first two movements of the Third Symphony.
On the subject of Glazunov’s memory, Dianin recalled that Glazunov once asked Borodin to play the Overture to Prince Igor, but the composer refused, saying that he was tired of it. «In that case, perhaps you would allow me to play it», replied Glazunov, who gave a performance that Borodin declared «accurate to the last note».
The completion of the opera
Prince Igor was left in five stages of completenes:
– Ten sections were complete in full score. These were mainly the pieces Borodin had been obliged to complete for various concert performances. (Not surprisingly, these include the most popular items.)
– Most of Acts 1, 2 and 4 were complete in vocal score with piano, much of it already prepared by Rimsky-Korsakov under Borodin’s supervision.
– Some sections (notably the Overture and much of Act 3) had been completed by the composer, but had never been written down beyond sketches. Borodin had, however, played the music to his friends on many occasions.
– A few sections had not been written at all.
– The final order of scenes and acts had not been decided…
Phillip Brookes, 2006
Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort lesen > HERE