The second half of the nineteenth century brought with it a burgeoning of Russian culture, itself, whatever nationalist critics might have said, a result of that cross-fertilisation of ideas that has its origin in the reforms of Peter the Great. In music nationalism was represented by the Five, described by the polymath Stasov as the Mighty Handful, led by Balakirev, with Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. Except for the first, their self-appointed leader, the others were essentially amateur, at least in their musical origins. There was, after all, some justice in the criticism of amateurism levelled at them by Anton Rubinstein, founder of the first professional Russian music conservatory in St. Petersburg. Cui held a position as a professor of military fortification; Mussorgsky was at first an army officer and later a civil servant; Rimsky-Korsakov started his career as a naval officer; Borodin was a distinguished analytical chemist.
The illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, Borodin was given the name of one of his father's serfs. Prince Gedianov, anxious to secure the future of his mistress, found a husband for her, an elderly retired army doctor, outlived by Gedianov, who died in 1843. Borodin's mother was left well enough off to allow her son an education, training as a doctor, followed by a successful profession as a chemist. Music was always a strong interest, but in a busy life there was not always the time needed t0 accomplish the musical ambitions that Borodin entertained, so that at the lime of his death in 1887 he had not finished his opera Prince Igor, a work finally shaped by Rimsky-Korsakov and the young Glazunov.
Borodin's musical interests were stimulated by his meeting in 1859 with Mussorgsky, who had resigned his commission in order to devote more of his lime to music and still further by a period spent in Germany and other countries in Western Europe, where he had opportunity to enjoy wider musical experience. It was in Heidelberg in 1861 that he met his future wife, a gifted pianist. On his return in 1862 to St. Petersburg, where he assumed his expected position at the Academy of Physicians, lecturing in organic chemistry, he met Balakirev, who exercised a strong influence on him and convinced him of his musical vocation and of the form it should take as a fellow-disciple of Glinka.
It seems that Borodin had started work on his String Quartet in A major by the summer of 1874, while he was working on Prince Igor. Sketches of the quartet were shown to Stasov and Mussorgsky in April the following year, much to their dismay at this use of a form that they chose to regard as obsolete. By the summer of 1877 he was still working on the quartet, during a brief holiday in the country and two years later, again at Davydovo, he was once more busy completing the same work, and working further on his opera. The quartet was first performed in St. Petersburg in December 1880 by the Quartet of the Russian Musical Society.
The A major Quartet starts with a slow introduction, its gentle opening theme then treated polyphonically before the Allegro, the first theme of which is derived from the last movement of Beethoven's Quartet in B flat, Opus 130, and is developed. A second subject of darker hue, follows, marked espressivo ed appassionato. The material is developed in a central section that includes a fugato passage. The recapitulation brings back, the first subject, and the second, now in the relative minor key. The movement ends with a coda based largely on motifs from the first subject and the bridge passage that follows it. The slow movement, marked Andante con moto, is in F sharp minor has an air of Russian melancholy about it, influenced by the folk-tune The Song of the Sparrow Hills, which he had found particularly appealing, as he worked with Rimsky-Korsakov on a collection of such material. The song, or something very like it, is heard in the counterpoint to the main theme and Borodin's biographer Sergey Dianin has suggested a parallel in the movement with the words of the song: an eagle seizes a crow, but gently questions it; the crow tells how it saw on the ground the body of a hero, with three small birds hovering over the body in mourning, the first the hero's mother, the second his sister and the third his young wife. He finds a parallel to the conversation of eagle and crow in the opening dialogue and to the three smaller birds in the fugato at the centre of the movement. The recapitulation is marked energico ed appassionato and so it opens, to end, however, in tranquillity.
The third movement is a lively F major Scherzo, with a Trio in A major and C major, the latter opening in whispered harmonics. The quartet ends with a movement that starts with a slow A minor introduction, its theme accompanied by material derived from the slow movement. Tripartite sonata form is again used in the A minor Allegro risoluto, with its energetic first subject, to which accompanying material is added from the slow movement. There is a lyrical second subject and a repetition of the exposition before the central development based on the earlier material and the final recapitulation, which again introduces references to the slow movement.
Borodin wrote on his String Quartet in D major in the summer of 1881, while he and his wife were staying in the country at Zhitovo. It was first performed at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in St. Petersburg in January the following year and was played again at a concert in December. It was published posthumously. The first movement opens with the cello statement of the first subject, followed by the first violin a fifth higher, followed by secondary material, before the cello resumes, now an octave lower. The second subject is entrusted to the first violin, accompanied by plucked notes from the rest of the quartet. There is an F major central development in which both subjects appear and a recapitulation, with a coda that ends in serenity. The F major Scherzo has its principal theme at the outset from the violins, with a second lilting waltz- like theme, marked meno mosso and played in thirds by the violins. This contrasting material is to serve as a Trio, since the movement lacks a formal trio section, proceeding to a central development and a modified recapitulation. The third movement Nottumo is the most famous. An A major Andante, it opens with an expressive cello melody, accompanied by the syncopated chords of viola and second violin, before the entry of the first violin in a high register. A faster passage leads to a second subject, marked appassionato e risoluto and entrusted first to the second violin. This material is developed, intermingled with elements of the principal theme. The recapitulation begins with the cello restatement of the first theme, followed in canon by the first violin. The first violin has the theme again, with the second violin now following in canon. The theme appears in more sinister guise in the lower register of the cello, before the final bars, with their suggestions of melancholy finally dispelled. The original key is restored in the final movement, which opens with a brief Andante in which the violin motif is answered by viola and cello. This provides material for the Vivace that follows, with a second subject introduced by the first violin, over a held viola note. The two elements of the introduction re-appear in the development and again after the return to the original key, with a recapitulation and an extended coda. Dianin also suggests a programme for this quartet, based on the happiness of Borodin's marriage, although there seems little reason to superimpose any such extraneous ideas on music of such serene happiness and joy in life.
ReviewsThe Hungarians of the Haydn Quartet have the D-Major Quarte will in hand, playing with consistent firm impulse, and realizing full color potential. - John Wiser, Fanfare, June 1995