Borodin, a notoriously slow worker, took some five years to complete his first extended work, the Symphony No. 1 (1862 – 67). The composer’s mentor, Mily Balakirev, conducted the premiere in 1868; unfortunately, this freshman effort was not well received. Though the Symphony is in E♭ major, its Adagio introduction begins in the minor mode. The tempo builds toward a lively triple meter containing great rhythmic interest in syncopation (accents on unexpected parts of the beat) and dotted rhythms. In fact, Borodin’s use of rhythm as thematic development is just as important as the melodic or harmonic aspects, and it is there that a comparison to Beethoven can be made. The rhythmic drive does much to propel and shape the character of the piece. While there are occasional melodies and tonalities that sound typically Russian, stylistically this early work is still beholden to the ghosts of Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847). The second movement, Prestissimo, is essentially a scherzo alla Mendelssohn. However, Borodin’s Russian soul breaks through in the more lyrical trio section. (The traditional nineteenth-century scherzo movement contained a contrasting middle section called the trio, which returns to the opening scherzo material: (ABA). The third movement, Andante, is lush, heartfelt, and very Romantic, and is, perhaps, the best indication of the Russian sensibility that typifies later works by Borodin such as the opera Prince Igor and Symphony No. 2. The finale, Allegro molto vivo, again, owes much to Schumann, a composer he greatly admired, in its thematic development and energy. This first effort already displays the orchestral color, magnificence, rhythmic vitality, and nationalistic identity of Borodin’s mature style.
Borodin: Symphony No. 1 in E♭ major
I. Adagio – Allegro – Andantino
II. Scherzo. Prestissimo – Trio. Allegro
IV. Allegro molto vivo