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Overture to Prince Igor

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Alexander Borodin
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Vassily Sinaisky, conductor: Rachmaninoff's The Bells / Loren Kitt, Principal Clarinet, plays Mozart's Clarinet Concerto Apr. 16 - 18, 2015
© Peter Laki

Russian composers of the 19th century believed that a genuine national school in music was unthinkable without opera-and not just any kind of opera, but opera on Russian historical subjects. It was in this spirit that Mikhail Glinka wrote his landmark Life for the Tsar in 1836; following in his footsteps, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his Maid of Pskov, Mussorgsky his Boris Godunov, and Tchaikovsky his Oprichnik, all in the 1870s. Alexander Borodin, who had recently joined the circle of young composers known as the "Mighty Handful" or the "Russian Five," also had to participate in the trend, and began work on Prince Igor as early as 1869. The topic-based on the medieval Russian epic The Lay of Igor's Campaign-was suggested to him by the critic Vladimir Stasov, who acted as an unofficial advisor to the "Five." The problem was that the multi-talented Borodin was a professor of chemistry during the day, and he had very little time to devote to composition. He managed to write a large portion of the opera, but at the time of his untimely death, the score was still unfinished. His friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rimsky's former student Alexander Glazunov, took it upon themselves to complete the opera, which was finally performed in St. Petersburg in 1890.

The opera is set in the 12th century when Prince Igor went to war against the Polovtsians, an Asian people speaking a Turkic language. It is unquestionably a masterpiece, but scholars and performers have had to struggle to disentangle what parts come from Borodin and what exactly his posthumous collaborators contributed. (The Met's recent production discarded as much of the additions as possible, and sought to return to Borodin's original.) We know from Glazunov's memoirs that the overture to Prince Igor was composed almost entirely by him, based on Borodin's themes, some sketches, and Glazunov's own memories from listening to Borodin play the overture on the piano. Thus the overture, which has long been a concert favorite, cannot be considered a work by Borodin; yet this takes nothing away from its brilliance. The orchestration does great credit to the young Glazunov, an accomplished master still in his twenties.

The themes of the overture all appear the opera itself: the slow introduction from Igor's aria, the fast section begins with some fanfares from the Polovtsian scene, followed by music from, among others, the duet between Igor and his wife Yaroslavna, and the theme of Konchakovna, the Polovtsian princess who is in love with Igor's son Vladimir. All these themes are woven together seamlessly, ending with a brilliant flourish.