Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Grammy-Winning Emerson Quartet Meets the Tony Award-Winning Alexander Borodin

Two previous posts covered Beethoven's String Quartet Op.132 which concludes the program and, covering the middle works, Bartok's 1st Quartet and three songs by Eugene Drucker, Of Troubled Times. In this post you can hear the Emerson Quartet's recording of the quartet Borodin composed in 1881 and find out how a “Sunday Composer” who took in stray cats won a Tony Award in 1954. I suppose you could call the 2nd movement “Sunday in the Park with Alexander” though I'm not sure how many of Borodin's “Cats” actually put in an appearance here, despite their having the run of his Petersburg apartment... Certainly, it's all Kismet.

Join us for the concert on Saturday evening at 7:30 at Temple Ohev Sholom, 2345 North Front Street in uptown Harrisburg.

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Alexander Borodin
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. Part of the history of Russian Music, however, must be our awareness that, at this time, there were few ways for a young would-be musician to gain any professional training.

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.

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 they 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.  

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. So technically, if we examine that “amateur” status again, as far as the Piano Quintet was concerned, yes, Borodin was as yet “un-trained.” He finished it before he turned 29. Once he started working with Balakirev, then, he jumped right into composing his first symphony.

In 1869, he'd begun two substantial projects: his 2nd Symphony which he then interrupted in the fall to start work on the opera, Prince Igor. With one thing and, mostly, another, it took him around seven years to complete the new symphony; the opera fared less well and remained incomplete sixteen years later when he died suddenly in 1885. With that kind of a schedule, his 1st String Quartet took about five years to complete; fortunately he began his 2nd Quartet in 1881 while staying at a friend's country estate, and finished it in a very short (for him) time.

It appears he had intended his new quartet as a 20th Anniversary gift for his wife and at one time he specifically referred to the second theme of the scherzo as an attempt to “conjure up the impression of a light-hearted evening in one of the pleasure gardens in suburban St. Petersburg.”

Whether his tunes – and who would deny he had a particular talent for creating memorable melodies? – are particularly Russian or not does not bother us today: like that theme from this quartet's third movement, the famous “Nocturne,” whether you grew up associating it with the Broadway musical, Kismet, or not – for which, curiously enough, Borodin won a posthumous Tony Award in 1954 (also, probably unique among Russian composers, he has an asteroid named after him).

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As life unfolded for Prof. Borodin – who added to his workload by championing education for women and later founding the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg – he found little time for much of anything beyond his profession. 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. 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.' 

In addition to friends and relatives, the Borodins seemed to collect stray cats. As 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 Sergeïevna. 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 Sergeïevna would defend him and recount his biography. Another installed himself on Borodin’s shoulders and berated him mercilessly. ‘Look here, sir, this is too much!’ cried Borodin, but the cat never moved.”
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During the 1860s, Borodin became a member of that legendary 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 Vladimir Stasov (sometimes referred to as the 6th member of The Five) used to describe them is better translated as “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 simply as “The Five” but this is something they never used among themselves and which was rarely used in Russia at all (it was mostly a French thing). Rimsky, in his autobiography, always referred to themselves as “Balakirev's Circle.”

(front row) Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Borodin; (in back) Stasov & Cui

They advocated incorporating folk-songs into their general musical styles. In most cases, this came out in colorful orchestral tone-poems full of exotic "scene-painting" or operas based on Russian folk tales or history, like Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov or Rimsky-Korsakov's Snegourochka. One major work in this style, Rimsky-Korsakov's massive Scheherazade, is not technically a Russian folk story, but full of the Orientalism that so many Russians, as their empire expanded into the Middle East, were fascinated by. 

One thing they generally tried to avoid were typically Germanic inspirations like abstract symphonies or string quartets. Mussorgsky in particular was opposed to Borodin's wasting so much time on his string quartets and symphonies, when he should be working on Prince Igor. But even Rimsky-Korsakov wrote very "Un-Russian"-sounding chamber music (his 2nd Symphony, Antar, was at least inspired by Slavic legends). Somehow, Cesar Cui's major operatic endeavor was a setting of a Heinrich Heine play set in 17th Century Scotland (!?): how that fared with his colleagues, I've no idea... Even Tchaikovsky, who incorporated authentic Russian folk-songs in his symphonies (even if he used them inauthentically) and who used Russian plots for his operas, was never considered "one of them" regardless of his international reputation.

This aesthetic viewpoint is important for the development of Russian music (and Russian culture in general). 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 – back in the early-1700s when he brought the old Asiatic empire kicking but 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; for those aspiring to “Expert Level,” there's also Richard Taruskin's On Russian Music).

The idea – developments already happening in Western Europe following various nationalist-inspired revolutions in 1848 and 1849 – was 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, then the dominating voice in most of Central and Eastern Europe. They essentially rejected such things as symphonies and concertos and especially the abstract world of chamber music.

While his early Piano Quintet (which you may recall from a 2017 Summermusic performance) sounds more Russian than this later quartet, I'd asked Peter Sirotin if the quintet quoted actual tunes Russians would recognize (folk-songs which most Americans would not) but he said they were original: “they just sound like it: he was very good at creating faux folk-tunes.”

Borodin wrote a surprisingly small amount of music – or should I say, “completed” a surprisingly small amount of music: he wrote three symphonies (the 3rd was left unfinished at his death) and a single tone-poem, In the Steppes of Central Asia; one full-length opera (which was also left incomplete), Prince Igor; and two string quartets. In addition to several songs, he also wrote a handful of piano pieces, including several paraphrases on “Chopsticks.” (Technically, it's not the same “Chopsticks” we know and probably loathe and he didn't take credit for composing the theme, whether he knew its original source or not. His daughter was playing a four-bar version of it called “Tati-Tati” one night for some friends and it became a party-piece as they started creating some impromptu variations. Seriously, the tune we call “Chopsticks” is far more interesting... Not that I would suggest you listen to all 32 minutes of them, but there it is...)

And on that note, this is Dick Strawser, signing off.

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