Thursday, July 9, 2020

Summertime and a Russian Chemist Writes Some Music

"Since this July we had to cancel Summermusic due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d like to revisit some of our past Summermusic performances for the next few weeks. In this week’s dose, I’ll begin by sharing a performance of the lyrical Piano Quintet by Alexander Borodin, written on a vacation in Italy for his fiancée, who was a pianist. Stuart Malina was the pianist in this performance, and he was joined by the familiar group of Summermusic artists including cellist Fiona Thompson, violist Michael Stepniak, violinist Blanka Bednarz and yours truly. Enjoy!" – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts
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When we think of “Piano Quintets,” I always mention how we tend to think of a mighty handful of masterpieces by Brahms, Schumann, Dvořák and Shostakovich (and possibly Franck), usually in that order. The two quintets on this original Summermusic2017 program – the first by Alexander Borodin and the second by Sergei Taneyev – may not fall into the “masterpiece” category, but they're also by composers not well-known for their chamber music.

Well, that's not entirely fair, since Taneyev is hardly known as a composer at all in this country, even if he wrote a good deal of chamber music including six string quartets over a productive career of thirty-five years. And if Borodin may be better known for the "Polovetsian Dances" from his opera Prince Igor or his 2nd Symphony, you'd probably recognize his 2nd String Quartet even if you'd never heard it before, since several of its tunes became pop songs thanks to their being quoted – or, if you prefer, “ripped off” – for the American musical, Kismet.

Stuart Malina, piano; Peter Sirotin & Blanka Bednarz, violins; Michael Stepniak, viola; Fiona Thompson, cello. (Performance recorded live at Market Square Church on July 26th, 2017, by Newman Stare.)

Borodin's quintet is in three movements, starting with what is essentially a moderate tempo for a first movement, marked Andante (more a “walking” tempo than just “slow”), followed by a scherzo (beginning at 5:49) complete with balalaika impersonations, and then a broadly contrasting finale (beginning at 12:45 with what sounds like the start of a slow movement), at times joyful, melancholy but above all songful (like so much Russian music).

To those familiar with Borodin's best pieces, his stylistic voice is remarkably identifiable: if it shows any influences from the German composers he was familiar with when he wrote this, it is not in the surface level we hear most easily. If it sounds “very Russian” to you (as it does to me), keep in mind he had no real Russian models at the time. If you look at other Russian composers well-known in America, neither Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov nor Mussorgsky had published their earliest works the year Borodin composed this Piano Quintet! The only Russian models he had were two other “amateur” composers of the previous generation, Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Dargomizhky. In fact, he hadn't even met Mily Balakirev, famous as the founder of “The Russian Five,” until after he'd completed this quintet! All of those associations and all the music they would create, proclaiming Russia to the wider musical world – was in the future.

You may think he is quoting Russian folk-songs to get this “Russian sound” as other composers would do later. For instance, when I hear Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, I am surprised how many of those tunes of his are not actually his but well-known (to a Russian) folk songs he's quoting. When I asked Peter Sirotin about Borodin's tunes, if they were folk songs, he jokingly replied they “just sound like it. He was good at creating faux-folktunes.”

Borodin: Chemist, Composer
In this country, Alexander Borodin – Dr. Alexander Borodin – is what we would call an “amateur” in the sense he did not make his living by his art (“amateur, from the Latin amo/amas/amat, to love”). Yet anyone familiar with Borodin's music would realize there is nothing “amateurish” about its quality. 

Borodin's day-job was being a chemistry professor. He called himself “a Sunday composer” who, during the winter – teaching season – could compose only when he was home sick. Consequently, his music-friends would greet him not by saying 'I hope you are well' but by saying 'I hope you are ill.'

Borodin was largely “un-trained,” another aspect of consideration when bandying about the word “amateur.” True, when he would've been a student, they didn't have music schools in Russia – Anton Rubinstein opened the first official one in St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital, in 1862 and when his brother Nikolai opened one in Moscow four years later, one of his first students was a former law-student named Tchaikovsky.

Borodin & Mendeleyev (center)
Instead, following his scientific interests, Borodin had entered the Imperial Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg in 1850 – a prestigious institution dating back to the days of Peter the Great: one of its later students named Pavlov might ring a bell – and following graduation, he spent a year as a surgeon in a military hospital, then was appointed as a professor of pathology and therapeutics before receiving his Doctorate in medicine and pursuing some post-doctoral work first in Heidelberg, Germany, in the late-1850s, then in Pisa in 1862, the year he published a paper describing the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride. One of his fellow students in Heidelberg, by the way, was a chemist named Mendeleyev who would publish his first periodic chart of the elements seven years later.

While in Heidelberg, Dr. Borodin met a young Russian woman – Ekaterina Sergeievna Protopopova – who was an amateur pianist with a preference for Chopin and Schumann. A woman of weakened health, she had come to Germany for “the cure,” but returned to St. Petersburg in 1862 – as did Borodin – and not long after that they were married.

Borodin's interest in music was awakened, in a sense, by Ekaterina's playing. So is it any coincidence he composed this piano quintet while traveling in Italy?

When he returned to Russia, Borodin was appointed a professor of chemistry at his alma mater and he and his new wife set up house-keeping in a spacious and rent-free apartment in the Academy building where domestic life took on a happy if often chaotic domesticity.

One other thing happened in 1862: though he had met a civil servant named Modest Mussorgsky, another would-be composer, a couple of times, it wasn't until he returned to Russia, his musical interests reactivated, that Borodin met composer and teacher Mily Balakirev and began taking lessons from him in his “spare” time. Though Rubinstein had opened his conservatory that same year, a full-time college professor would hardly have time to take regularly scheduled classes and lessons and so continued the age-old tradition of studying, however haphazardly, with a "master."

By then, Borodin had already completed a small number of chamber works – a couple of piano trios, a cello sonata (inspired by Bach), two string trios, a string quintet and a string sextet – before he began his Piano Quintet in C Minor. Once he started working with Balakirev, he jumped right into composing his first symphony.

So technically, if we examine that “amateur” status again, as far as the Piano Quintet is concerned, yes, Borodin was as yet “un-trained.” He finished it before he turned 29.

As life would unfold for Prof. Borodin – who added to his workload by championing education for women and later founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg – he found little time to work on his compositions. Living at the academy itself made him accessible, day and night, to students and colleagues. Relatives of his wife's would show up if they needed a place to stay and at any one time someone might be sleeping on a couch or in a spare bed or, as happened one time, on the grand piano, forcing him to abandon plans to get any composing done for the moment.

Plus, in addition to relatives, they seemed to collect stray cats. As his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov noted in his autobiography,

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“Many cats that the Borodins lodged marched back and forth on the table, thrusting their noses into the plates or leaping on the backs of the guests. These felines enjoyed the protection of Catherine Sergueïevna. They all had biographies. One was called Fisher because he was successful in catching fish through the holes in the frozen river. Another, known as Lelong, had the habit of bringing home kittens in his teeth which were added to the household. More than once, dining there, I have observed a cat walking along the table. When he reached my plate I drove him away; then Catherine Sergeyevna would defend him and recount his biography. Another installed himself on Borodin’s shoulders and heated him mercilessly. ‘Look here, sir, this is too much!’ cried Borodin, but the cat never moved.”
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In the 1860s – still, post-Quintet – Borodin became a member of a circle of composers orbiting around Mily Balakirev, along with Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky and a fellow named Cesar Cui whose day-job was being a military engineer and later a music critic. Advocating a "national Russian voice" in their music, they became such a powerful presence in Russian music they were known as “The Mighty Handful,” though the exact words the critic Stasov used to describe them was “Mighty Bunch.” (I have often argued that Cesar Cui, the last to be mentioned and the most easily forgotten, might well be the “Little Finger of the Mighty Handful,” but that's another story.) More often they are referred to as “The Five” but this is something they never used among themselves and something which seemed rarely used in Russia at all (it was mostly a French thing). Rimsky, in his autobiography, always referred to themselves as “Balakirev's Circle.”

This aesthetic viewpoint is important for the development of Russian music (and culture in general). In Russian culture, at this time, there were those who favored the old Russian traditional identity, called “Slavophiles,” and those who preferred the idea of being cosmopolitans, becoming part of Europe both culturally and socially. Yes, technically this division goes back before the days of Peter the Great – "Peter I" to Russians who, historically, do not always consider him all that great – in the early-1700s when he brought the old Asiatic empire kicking and mostly screaming into the sphere of Western Europe. (I could point you in the direction of several fat books that delve into this topic, if you're interested: Orlando Figes' Natasha's Dance and Bruce Lincoln's Between Heaven and Hell; there's also Richard Taruskin's On Russian Music).

The idea was – following developments that had already started happening in Western Europe following the 1848 revolutions – to incorporate the folk-songs and dance rhythms of the people into the music rather than rely on the “imported traditions” of especially German music. They essentially rejected such things as symphonies and concertos and especially the abstract world of chamber music.

Yet this incorporation of the music of the Russian people either as outright quotations or creating melodies in the style of folksong, rather than imitations of German or Italian styles and techniques as had been the norm in Russian history since 1700, goes back to Mikhail Glinka - speaking of amateurs with little if any real training - whose Fantasy on Two Wedding Songs, Kamarinskaya, written in 1848, is (as Stravinsky later put it) “the acorn from which all Russian music grew.”

(Balakirev, himself a brilliant pianist at the start of his career, even made a Lisztian transcription of the piece which I've always had a fondness for.)

As you can hear, the faster tune itself is never "developed" in the standard German classical sense, but repeated over and over with ever-changing textures, orchestration and harmonies - a bit like Ravel's Bolero which, when it was first heard in 1928, was considered so radical! This, then, is the dilemma of the folk-inspired composer: how to create a long-form piece out of a few bars of music that defy expansion?

But remember, Borodin's initial endeavors in music were rooted in these early chamber music pieces of his like the Piano Quintet which were so heavily influenced by the style of Mendelssohn (remember, he was in Germany when he wrote most of those pieces). He had no innate Russian tradition to build on. Even later, he would complete two symphonies and two string quartets which his colleagues argued were “Un-Russian,” wishing he would spend what limited time he had for composing in more appropriate genres like operas (like his Prince Igor which he started working on in 1868 and still left unfinished at his death twenty years later) and symphonic poems (like his In the Steppes of Central Asia).

And yet this Piano Quintet sounds so inherently Russian with its folk-like themes, it might come as a surprise it is not only such an early work of his (despite its simplicity which one can excuse more as “charming” rather than “amateurish”) but that it was written before he came under the nationalist influence of Balakirev and his circle!

Dick Strawser

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