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Overture to Prince Igor

When Alexander Borodin died suddenly at age 53, his historical opera Prince Igor remained far from finished. Almost immediately, his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov began fleshing it out.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born November 12, 1833, in St. Petersburg, Russia; died there, February 27, 1887
  • Year completed: Reconstructed from memory and orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov, summer 1887
  • First performance: November 5, 1887, in St. Petersburg, in a Russian Symphonic Concert conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov
  • First BSO performance: Tanglewood, July 18, 1987, Genady Rozhdestvensky conducting
  • Approximate duration: 11 minutes

The score for the Overture to Prince Igor calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses).

When Alexander Borodin died suddenly at the age of 53 at midnight on February 27, 1887, while attending a fancy St. Petersburg costume ball in Russian national dress, his historical opera Prince Igor remained far from finished even after 18 years of sporadic work. Of the projected prologue and four acts, only a small portion had been completed and orchestrated—ten numbers, mostly from Act II. Borodin also left behind piano-vocal versions of a few other sections: the prologue, scene one of Act I, and the whole of Act IV.

Almost immediately, his admiring friends and colleagues Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov began fleshing out the remaining sections and assembling the work. They also made the (controversial) decision to add some new music of their own. Their version, published in Leipzig in 1889 and staged in St. Petersburg in 1890—including Glazunov’s reconstruction and orchestration of the overture—was a truly collaborative project and remained for many years the standard performing edition.

It was journalist and critic Vladimir Stasov who gave Borodin the idea of writing an opera about the minor medieval Russian Prince Igor Sviatoslavich (1151-1202). Igor’s story, as related in the 12th-century anonymous epic poem “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” (“Slovo o polku Igoreve”), conveys the glory and uniqueness of the Russian past—even as it laments the defeat of Igor’s forces by the armies of the mighty Polovtsian nomads and the dangers of squabbling between the princes of the Kievan era. Stasov believed that the subject “met all the demands of Borodin’s talent and artistic nature: broad epic motifs, nationalism, variety of characters, passion, drama, the oriental.”

If Borodin had followed Stasov’s libretto outline, the opera’s dramatic and musical coherence would surely have benefitted. Instead, proceeding on impulse, jumping between acts and scenes as his whims dictated, he responded to the spirit, rather than the details of the Igor Tale, focusing on epic stage pictures of heroic medieval Russia rather than psychological portraits or dramatic tension. The illegitimate son of an elderly Caucasian prince, Borodin wrote his most inspired music in “oriental” style (to use Stasov's problematic term) for the scenes in the Polovtsian encampment, where Prince Igor and his son Vladimir (in love with Konchakovna, daughter of the Polovtsian leader Konchak) live in luxurious confinement after their defeat in battle. About half of the sections Borodin orchestrated belong to the Polovtsian acts, including the opera’s most well-known pages, the Polovtsian Dances concluding Act II.

Borodin’s lackadaisical work ethic frustrated his more disciplined colleagues, especially Rimsky (who would a few years later “organize” and edit Modest Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov). “I ought to point out that on the whole I am a composer in search of oblivion; and I’m always slightly ashamed to admit that I compose,” Borodin admitted. “For others it’s a simple matter, a vocation, an end in life; but for me it’s a recreation, an idle pastime, which provided diversion from my real work, my work as professor and scientist.”

Glazunov was assigned to “fill in all the gaps in Act III and write down from memory the Overture played so often by the composer, while I was to orchestrate, finish composing, and systematize all the rest that had been left unfinished and unorchestrated by Borodin,” wrote Rimsky in his memoirs. Since Borodin never committed the overture to paper, the 22-year old Glazunov should be considered as co-author of what has come to be an extremely popular and beloved work in its own right. For this reason, some recent “authentic” stagings of Prince Igor (including the Metropolitan Opera’s 2014 production) have eliminated the overture and open with the Prologue.

“The overture was composed by me roughly according to Borodin’s plan,” Glazunov wrote later. “I took the themes from the corresponding numbers of the opera and was fortunate enough to find the canonic ending of the second subject among the composer’s sketches. I slightly altered the fanfares for the overture…. The bass progression in the middle I found noted down on a scrap of paper, and the combination of the two themes (Igor’s aria and a phrase from the trio) was also discovered among the composer’s papers. A few bars at the very end were composed by me.”

The overture opens in a menacing and solemn mood (Andante). A 39-bar introduction in A minor features slowly descending figures in the strings against a muted accompaniment in the woodwinds and brass. In the next section (Allegro) the key shifts to bright A major as brass fanfares establish a military atmosphere leading into a series of precipitous ascending runs that mimic the galloping of horses across the steppe. The clarinet then enters (dolce—”sweetly”) with the first subject, the melody of the trio sung by Konchakovna, Vladimir, and Igor in Act III. With another shift in key, the woodwinds introduce the second subject, Igor’s defiant baritone aria sung in captivity (“O Give Me Freedom”), unfolding in two contrasting sections. In traditional sonata-allegro form, the two subjects then intertwine and develop, before a brief return to the solemnity of the introduction and a rousing finale concluding in optimistic D major.

By the time he undertook to reconstruct this well-paced, dramatic, and ingeniously orchestrated overture, the wunderkind Glazunov had already completed two symphonies, two string quartets, and numerous chamber works. He would go on to a brilliant and important career as a composer and pedagogue that lasted well into the Soviet era. His students included Dmitri Shostakovich, who adored him and called him “a public figure of immense significance.”

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. He has contributed essays and reviews to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Opera News, and program notes to the Boston Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera.