In the Steppes of Central Asia

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            Successful composers who are also distinguished medical school faculty members, as well as research chemists with over forty respected publications are rare, to say the least.  Yet, that was Borodin, holding doctorates in both fields. Born an illegitimate serf, he nevertheless was fortunate to have a loving father (a member of the nobility), who took major steps to legitimize him, educate him, and situate him in the higher ranks of Russian society.  From his earliest years he pursued equally avid interests in music and science.  Many of his youthful musical compositions survive, he learned to play the violoncello well, and, with friends, studied, composed, and performed music with gusto.  He entered medical school, discovered an interest in research chemistry, and spent a career in both endeavors.  Typically, on trips to Europe he found time both to visit laboratories of well-known chemists, and to show his musical scores to Franz Liszt--an admirer of his work.

            Although he composed songs, piano works, chamber works, and symphonies, he is best remembered today for his unfinished opera, Prince Igor (many will think of the famous “Polovtsian Dances” from that work) and, of course, In the Steppes of Central Asia.  Truth be told, he would probably be surprised that the latter work is almost his signature composition for today’s audiences, for it is a modest one.  He expended far greater effort on Prince Igor, his very respected symphony in B minor, and his many chamber works—for him, personally, they defined his career’s successes. 

            In the Steppes of Central Asia is a brief work intended to accompany a tableau (one of twelve, each with its own illustrative music by various Russian composers).  These twelve tableaux vivants were intended as a part of a general celebration in 1880 of the first twenty-five years of the reign of Czar Aleksandr II.  After an assassination attempt (not uncommon in those days) the whole affair was canned, but Borodin’s contribution was premièred later in the year in another circumstance.  One of the putative virtues of the Czar was his expansion of the Russian Empire (sound familiar?) to the East, and the scene that Borodin was assigned was a rough illustration of that.

            The pictorial content of the music is clear, for Borodin included the following description in his score:

“In the silence of the monotonous steppes of Central Asia is heard the unfamiliar sound of a peaceful Russian song. From the distance we hear the approach of horses and camels and the bizarre and melancholy notes of an oriental melody. A caravan approaches, escorted by Russian soldiers, and continues safely on its way through the immense desert. It disappears slowly. The notes of the Russian and Asiatic melodies join in a common harmony, which dies away as the caravan disappears in the distance.”

            This romantic little piece consists of only three clear musical elements:  a melody that evokes a Russian folksong, another one—a very different one--that is intended to be in an “Eastern” style, and constant pizzicato octaves in the strings that depict the animals of the caravan plodding along. Solos from the clarinet and horn with the Russian tune open the work, and shortly, the pizzicato strings evoke the caravan, followed by the exotic sound of the English horn with the “Oriental” tune.  Gradually, the Russian tune is treated to fuller and louder orchestration as the caravan happily moves along, obviously content and secure under the aegis of the “protection” of the expanding Russian empire.  The string section returns with a full treatment of the Eastern tune, and then all three elements are cleverly combined contrapuntally as we reach the climax.  Gradually there is a musical fade out as apparently the caravan disappears into the distance, and we are left only with the solo flute playing the Russian tune.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©  2015 William E. Runyan