When Alexander Borodin (the illegitimate son of a Prince) completed his first string quartet in 1877, it was met with much acclaim, prompting one critic to pronounce that Borodin had produced “Russia’s first great piece of chamber music.” Borodin had little spare time for composition during the course of his career as he was a full time chemist and scientist, as well as a Woman’s Rights advocate and viewed music as a break from his more ‘serious’ work. He is most noted in the scientific community for the creation of the “Borodin reaction,” a chemical reaction that has had important implications for further scientific research, however the works that he did compose are deeply moving and melodically rich.
As a member of “The Mighty Handful,” (The Five) whose aim was to create a distinctly Russian national art music independent of dominant western European models (under the leadership of Balakirev), it is interesting that Borodin, in their company, was keenly interested in chamber music. Furthermore he subtitled his first String Quartet “On a Theme of Beethoven.” Borodin uses a variation of the theme from Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.130 in the first movement. The three-note musical motif in the first movement also bears some resemblances to Beethoven’s late quartets.
Borodin infuses the inner two movements with distinct Russian flavours with the second movement beginning with a 2-part fugue based on a Russian folk melody. This is followed by a Scherzo
in 3 / 8 time, with a gentle trio section contrasting the dance-like rhythmic drive of the Scherzo.
The final movement begins with an Andante, again utilising a three-note theme reminiscent of the first movement. Here, Borodin uses harmonics and mutes to create distinct musical colours. Coupled with his interesting harmonies (that would later inspire Ravel and Debussy), Borodin launches into a lively section based on a repeating musical theme. Interspersed throughout are introspective, tender moments that offer moments of reflection before launching into the lively material that drives the quartet to its conclusion.