Alexander Borodin (1833-1887)
String Quartet No. 1 in A Major (on a theme of Beethoven), 1879
Alexander Borodin was a full-time professional Chemist, and in his spare time, a composer. Still, he managed to write a small but highly regarded oeuvre including two symphonies, two operas, and two string quartets among his mature works. All of them show tremendous craftsmanship, a gift for melody, a distinctive personality, and they secure Borodin’s reputation as one of the great Russian composers emerging in the late 19th century. Borodin was one of “The Five”, the so-called “Mighty Handful” of Russian composers that associated in St. Petersburg and sought to create a distinctly Russian national art music independent of dominant western European models.
Borodin’s first quartet is overshadowed by his more popular second perhaps in part because it is more complex with its density of ideas and the extensive use of counterpoint. Though the quartet is intellectual, it is not dry. Just the opposite: it is a sensuous feast of melody and color, with lyricism matching the second quartet, and a palette of string writing novel for the late nineteenth century. Romantic, and definitely Russian, the psychological and emotional range of the quartet is vivid and vast, while, like the best of chamber music, its structure and detail offer plenty for the connoisseur. It is rich fare.
It bears the subtitle “On a theme of Beethoven”. The original theme is from the finale of Beethoven’s late quartet, Op. 130. Borodin uses a slight variation of the theme as his main theme in the first movement. The sonata begins with a substantial introduction on a three-note motive, a reflective preamble also reminiscent of Beethoven’s late quartets. The main body of the movement features two important themes and a distinctive bridge passage that all combine, along with the climatic reappearance of the introductory theme, in a variety of contrapuntal combinations and fugato passages. The final movement is also a sonata, with a substantial slow introduction, a vigorous risoluto theme and compelling counterpoint as well.
The quartet’s two inner movements are particularly distinctive. The second movement is the quartet’s center of gravity. It begins with a lamenting theme in spare two-part counterpoint based on a Russian folk-song that suddenly bursts into a dramatic cry, subsiding again into wistful reflection. A brooding fugue follows. Upon returning, the somber theme inverts its counterpoint for an especially icy and urgent tone, fateful against the dirge-like pulsing of the lower strings. The ponderous andante relaxes into the refreshing third movement scherzo, a treasure in the chamber music literature. The quicksilver scherzo is full of energetic rhythmic play a la Mendelssohn and the trio presents an astonishing contrast: using a combination of mutes and harmonics, it sparkles like a precious music box, delicate and poised amidst the rush of the surrounding scherzo. Borodin demonstrates that, even in the medium of the string quartet, he is a master of color.
Borodin wrote the quartet over a period of two years and published it in 1879 with a dedication to Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife. It was well received, prompting one critic to pronounce that Borodin had produced Russia’s first great piece of chamber music.