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Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor

The extended ballet sequence known as the “Polovtsian Dances” never fails to steal the show.

Composition and premiere: Alexander Borodin spent eighteen years on his opera Prince Igor, which remained incomplete at his death in 1887; it was completed for performance by his friends Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov (the latter reconstructing and scoring music he had heard Borodin play at the piano). The first performance of the opera took place November 16, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theater, St. Petersburg. The first BSO performances of the Polovtsian Dances, in April 1920, were led by Pierre Monteux. The first Tanglewood performance of the Polovtsian Dances was given by the combined Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and Boston Symphony Tanglewood Institute Orchestra during Tanglewood on Parade on August 26, 1986, Leon Fleisher conducting. The first BSO performance of the piece at Tanglewood was on August 27, 1994, Yuri Simonov conducting, with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Dima Slobodeniouk led the BSO in the most recent Tanglewood performance on August 5, 2018, without chorus.

Surely Alexander Borodin composed the best music ever written by a practicing chemist. He received a doctorate for his dissertation On the Analogy of Arsenical with Phosphoric Acid, while at the same time practicing his cello and writing some of his first chamber works. At the age of 31 he became a full professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. His professional life was spent there investigating the products of the condensation of the aldehydes of valerian, enantol, and vinegar. But he led a second life as well, one that was enthusiastically supported by a group of Russian nationalist musicians including Balakirev and Mussorgsky. Partly with their encouragement and support he began writing in the larger forms, producing ultimately three symphonies, two string quartets and other chamber music, piano pieces, songs, and several stage works.

Prince Igor was intended to be his masterpiece; though he spent eighteen years of part-time work on the score, it was not quite finished when he died, and only through the contributions of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov was it finally brought to performance. The opera has had a mixed success over the years, largely because Borodin insisted on writing his own libretto and had started the composing before even clarifying some of the lines of the plot. The result is a colorful opera that now seems somewhat disjointed and that is heard outside of Russia only in occasional revivals. When it is heard, however, the extended ballet sequence known as the “Polovtsian Dances” never fails to steal the show. This was designed as a series of entertainments for Prince Igor to pass the time while he is held captive in the camp of the great Khan. The dances are performed, in the opera house, with choruses alternating between the seductions of the slave girls and the vigorous praise of the great Khan himself. Often the choruses are omitted in concert performance, but they add greatly to the barbaric splendor of the scene, further enriched by Borodin’s brilliantly colorful orchestration. The enchanting melodic grace of these dances was recognized by Robert Wright and George Forrest, who mined this particular field for no fewer than three songs in their musical Kismet; that melodic freshness in Borodin’s original form has made the Polovtsian Dances an ever-popular orchestral showpiece.

Steven Ledbetter

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.