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Composed: 1869–1887

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 6, 1942, Thomas Beecham conducting

About this Piece

Little could he have known what life had in store for him when, at age 25, with a medical degree in hand, Alexander Borodin went to Heidelberg to do research in chemistry. While there, the world of music opened up to him, and he became as immersed in it as he was in science. Wagner operas, and the works of Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Schumann—many introduced to him by a young pianist who was to become his wife—were the volatile elements which produced a passion that became the source of new-found joy. Unfortunately, considering his full-time occupation as a very successful chemist, music—or rather, finding time for it—also became a source of frustration. After leaving Heidelberg and traveling throughout Europe, Borodin returned to Mother Russia where, along with the other members of the “Mighty Five” (Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov), he began to research his country’s folk music and then to use it as a basis for his compositions. Obviously, Borodin was a man of determination and energy, for in his second occupation he was able to be extremely productive, writing a variety of works including symphonies, chamber music, songs, piano pieces, and the opera Prince Igor.

Indeed, crucial to the story of Borodin and to virtually all the music he wrote was that opera. He planned it as early as 1869, but ironically, although he worked on it at various times throughout his life, it remained unfinished at his death in 1887. The setting of the opera is Russia in the 12th century, and the story deals with the battles of the Prince and the Polovtsi. The opera was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov (who also completed and/or reworked many of Mussorgsky’s pieces) and Alexander Glazunov. Part of the finishing-up work had to do with the Overture, which, oddly enough, was one of the last parts Borodin undertook to write. According to an account of the situation, the composer had played the Overture—which he based on various themes from the opera—at the piano for friends but had not yet written it down. Glazunov’s reconstruction of it was accomplished by his referring to the particular sections of the opera that corresponded to Borodin’s outline and consulting sketches found in the composer’s effects. —Orrin Howard