Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Russian Nationalism: Borodin's "Polovstian Dances"

Music transcends borders and has a way of speaking to everyone across the globe in some way. Many composers over the past centuries, however, have found inspiration within their homeland. Whether that inspiration stems from racial tensions within their society or nationalistic pride for the country, these composers found a way to pull from ethnic influences when writing their music.

Today, let’s look at a 19th-century Russian composer who allowed nationalism to influence his work. Alexander Borodin is one of the members of what has been dubbed “The Mighty Five,” a group of composers living and working within 19th-century Russia who were enthusiastic about the progression they witnessed within the Western music world. Using progressive ideas in their own music, they sought to incorporate Russian folk music amongst other elements in their work. Besides Borodin, the group also consisted of Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov (who we will discuss further during my next post!)

Though holding a career as a chemist, Alexander Borodin somehow still managed to successfully find time to compose. One of his famous, though unfinished, works is his opera Prince Igor. The work was later finished by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov following Borodin’s death. The opera tells the story of Prince Igor and his son who go on military campaign against nomadic Polovtsi tribe. They end up captured but are treated surprisingly well by the nomads. Later in the opera, Prince Igor escapes, leaving behind his son who has fallen in love with a girl from the tribe. In order to prepare for this composition, Borodin actually researched the folk music of Russian nomadic tribes! You can hear the “Polovstian Dances” from Prince Igor below. Listen for the robust rhythms and the Russian-folk feel in the video clip below. Do you find this piece to exhibit Russian nationalism?

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