String Quartet No. 2 (Borodin)

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The String Quartet No. 2, written in 1881, by Alexander Borodin is a work in four movements:

  1. Allegro moderato in D major and 2/2 time, with 304 bars;
  2. Scherzo. Allegro in F major and 3/4 time, with 299 bars;
  3. Notturno (Nocturne): Andante in A major and 3/4 time, with 180 bars;
  4. Finale: Andante — Vivace in D major and 2/4 time, with 671 bars.

It was written in Zhitovo, while staying with his friend, the minor composer Nikolai Lodyzhensky.[1] 1881, the year of its composition, also saw the composition of the symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia; the quartet premiered in that year or the next. (The external links give a more complete tale but conflict on the date.)

First movement[edit]

The first movement is written in a sonata form. The principal theme of the exposition begins in measure one, with a cello singing a lyrical melody in high register.


\version "2.14.2"
\relative c' {
\clef bass
\key d \major
\time 2/2
\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
\tempo 2 = 70
r4 fis( a) fis8 e 
d4( fis) cis( fis)
b,( fis') b, a
b cis \times 2/3 {d--( e-- fis--)}
fis e2. 
}

The transition begins in measure 35, and quickly leads into the subordinate theme (measure 44) in A-Major, a dominant.


\version "2.14.2"
\relative c'' {
\key d \major
\time 2/2
\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
\tempo 2 = 70
fis4( b) ~ b8 a16( b a8[ gis])
fis8( gis16 a gis8[ fis]) cis2
d8.( e16 fis4) ~ fis8 e16( fis e8[ d])
cis2-> gis 
}

The subordinate theme has a complex structure, a three-part form of its own (a-b-a'), which leads into the closing theme in measure 86 (Animato), which concludes the exposition in measure 107. The development (beginning in measure 108) begins with the same material as the exposition, except the cello is in the low register, and the key is changed from D-major to F-major. After some contrapuntal work, the development reaches a dominant pedal point (measure 167), which resolves in the main key of the piece, D-Major, in the recapitulation in measure 180. The recapitulation follows the broad outlines of the exposition, except the subordinate theme (measure 224) begins in E-flat major instead of the customary D-major. The three-part structure of the subordinate theme, though, allows Borodin to reach the expected D-major in the a' part of the subordinate theme (measure 257), and the closing theme (measure 266) concludes the movement.

The first movement is one of the most perfect examples of Borodin's lyrical (as opposed to dramatic) treatment of the sonata form. All thematic material is lyrical; contrasts are achieved through the use of contrapuntal writing (as in the middle section of the subordinate theme, beginning in measure 57, and especially in beginning in measure 65), or color contrasts (such as changes of keys--beginning of the development, and particularly the non-traditional key of the subordinate theme in the recapitulation).

Second movement[edit]

The scherzo second movement is also in sonata form rather than the ABA form more usual for scherzo-style movements. Of note is also the appearance of a scherzo as the second movement in a sonata cycle, rather than the more customary third movement. This is characteristic for Borodin, who used the same movement scheme (scherzo as a second movement) in his Second Symphony.

The principal theme of this movement (descending scale-based figure of the first violin, accompanied by a falling motive in a viola) reminds one of Mendelssohn's scherzi.


\version "2.14.2"
\relative c'' {
\key f \major
\time 3/4
\set Timing.beamExceptions = #'()
\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
\tempo 4 = 240
f8->( e d c d c)
f->( e d c d c)
a'->( g f e f e)
a->( g f e f e)
d'->( c) c( a f a)
bes->( a) a( f d f)
a->( g) g( e c e)
f->( d) c( d c d)
}

When the movement reaches its subordinate theme (measure 29), it turns out that the accompanying falling motive of viola, having been inverted, becomes the gorgeous "rising thirds" motive of the subordinate theme.


\version "2.14.2"
\relative c' {
\key f \major
\time 3/4
\set Timing.beamExceptions = #'()
\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
\tempo 4 = 160
<f a>4( <b d>2)
<f a>4( <b d>2)
<g b>4( <c e>4.) <e, g>8(
<a c>4 <g b>8 <a c> <g b> <f a>)
}

As any good subordinate theme, though, the subordinate theme retains something of the principal theme--in this case the descending scale-based figure, repeated by viola starting with measure 51. The movement's development begins at measure 100, and it has much emphasis on counterpoint, such as, for example, combining the motives of the principal and subordinate themes (measure 144). The recapitulation (measure 192) brings the subordinate theme in the main key of F (measure 221), and, after a momentary burst of activity, the movement whispers away.

The tuneful subordinate theme of this movement was freely used in the musical Kismet as the song Baubles, Bangles and Beads. This musical received the 1954 Tony Award.

Third movement[edit]

The main theme of the third movement Nocturne, performed in string orchestra arrangements and perhaps the most famous in the quartet, also appears in the musical Kismet, as And This is My Beloved. An agitated middle section lasting from bars 47-110 of the movement interrupts this theme's otherwise peaceful mood. Of particular note is Borodin's masterful statement of the main theme after the middle section in canon (first cello and the first violin, then two violins).

Finale[edit]

The finale is the movement where Borodin's contrapuntal mastery is on full display. Written in a conventional sonata form, it opens with an introduction, which introduces the principal theme, broken into two elements--a dialogue between two violins, answered by a viola and cello. These "question-answer" motives (one possibly being an imprecise retrograde inversion of another) combine into the principal theme of the movement (beginning with measure 20), where the "answer" makes an accompaniment, and the "question" makes for the upper voice. The principal theme is stated as a canon, with viola, second violin, and first violin stating the theme, which modulates into a dominant, and lead into the subordinate theme in measure 90. The subordinate theme retains the frantic pace of the principal theme, to be contrasted with a more relaxed closing theme, based on the motives of the subordinate theme, at measure 177. The development starts just as the exposition--with the question-answer dialogue, except the question now is in lower strings, and the answer in violins. After much contrapuntal work (including a charming "horse-riding" episode worthy of Rossini, beginning in measure 296), the recapitulation begins with the now familiar question-answer motives, this time enunciated by the combined strings (measure 371). The recapitulation proceeds as expected (with the subordinate theme in the tonic key, measure 459), only to be suddenly shifted into another key by the beginning of the coda (measure 588). But this modulation proves to be short-lived, and the coda quickly reaches the long-breathed D-major close.

Recordings[edit]

The Borodin Quartet in both its incarnations have specialized in this work, producing fine recordings of it.

References[edit]

External links[edit]