Alexander Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia
Composed in 1880, Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia was intended to be presented as one of the tableaux vivants to celebrate the silver anniversary of the reign of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. The event didn’t happen as planned, however the symphonic poem that Borodin composed remained a popular concert piece. Premiered in April 1880 in St Petersburg by the orchestra of the Russian Opera, this performance was conducted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In the Steppes of Central Asia is dedicated to Borodin’s friend, Franz Liszt.
The work brings to life the interactions between the Russians and Asians in the steppe lands of the Caucasus. Borodin added his own note to the score to explain the scene in more detail:
“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.”
The opening evocation of the wide landscapes surrounding the area is peaceful and highly atmospheric. The Russian theme is heard first by a clarinet, however the theme is passed to the solo horn soon after. The oriental theme that comes next is played on the cor anglais. The decorated oriental melody is accompanied by suspended strings, which gives a feeling of weightlessness for the soloist. The alluring solo is highly descriptive and as the two melodies begin to intertwine, the story becomes clearer.
The ‘travelling theme’ is first heard through a pizzicato theme by the strings, which depicts the clip-clopping hooves from the horses and camels. This theme is then intertwined and acts as an accompaniment for the tutti woodwind soli and then the horn soli. As the orchestra unite to play the new theme in a grandiose style, the character of the piece changes from somewhat mysterious to march-like.
The celli then take over the theme as the tension begins to drop back down again. The violins take the theme and now Borodin’s rich textures begin to unfold. This lyrical section shows the unity between the Russians and Asians as they travel through the desert together. The cor anglais emerges again with a new take on the oriental solo, however by the end of the piece only the Russian theme is heard. As the travellers begin to disappear into the distance, instruments begin to leave the texture until only a handful of top strings and a solo flute are left.
Alexander Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia is an evocative that tells the story of two tribes. The music depicts the travelling movements and the two different parties in the journey and is effective in doing this. Borodin’s flair for melody writing, plus his intriguing use of textures and timbres makes this work one of his most-performed.