Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: Borodin’s Cats

Alexander BorodinCats were everywhere:
The dining table, even
Borodin’s shoulders.


Cats—the Internet is full of them.

And, apparently, so was Borodin’s house.

Rimsky-Korsakov tells the story of visiting Alexander Borodin and having to contend with his numerous cats.  When Rimsky-Korsakov would try to shoo a cat away from his plate, as cats sauntered across the dining table, Borodin’s wife would attempt to excuse the cat’s behavior and tell a story about it.  She named one Fisher (Ribolov) because he liked to catch fish with his paw through holes in the ice of the river.  Another cat had the habit of bringing orphaned kittens home, and they too found a home with the Borodins.

But sometimes even Borodin’s limits were tested.  When one nestled upon his shoulders for a snooze, becoming a too warm and heavy scarf, Borodin said, “Listen, Your Majesty, this has gotten out of hand.”  But Borodin didn’t move—and neither did the cat.

And now, some music.  Here are Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor (you can read more about them here).


А. П. Бородин в воспоминаниях современников [A. P. Borodin in the Reminiscences of His Contemporaries], edited by A. P. Zorina.  Moscow: Muzyka, 1985, p 57, which quotes Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography, Летопись моей музыкальной жизни [My Musical Life], (various editions available in Russian and English).


Image attribution:  Alexander Borodin, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Leave a comment

Haiku Wednesday: These Five Were a Handful—Balakirev’s Circle

hand holding Russian flag

Balakirev, Borodin,
Mussorgsky and Cui.

These make up “The Five,”
Russia’s Mighty Handful of
Splendid composers.

The five composers noted above, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, and César Cui, made up the group that came to be known as The Five, or in Russia, the Balakirev Circle or Mighty Handful (Могучая кучка).  The group was led by Balakirev, and the goal was to elevate the standing of Russian traditional music (the musical nationalism movement, which was found in other countries as well).

The name Mighty Handful came from a review of a concert that included a number of Russian composers, including Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov (and Mikhail Glinka as well).  When the phrase was used disdainfully by critics, Balakirev and his group kept the name as a badge of honor.

One unusual thing that distinguished this group is that most of them kept their “day jobs.”  Borodin was a chemist (he is well known for his work with aldehydes and as co-discoverer of the Aldol reaction). Others were in the military or civil service.  What’s more, none were conservatory trained (which may have been part of the disdain noted above).

It was a challenge to pick some music to represent this group.  Hmm, challenge, mighty handful…actually there can be only one choice:  Balakirev’s Islamey, long considered one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) piece of solo piano music of all time (Ravel wrote Gaspard de la Nuit with the intent of making it more difficult than Islamey!).

Here is Islamey, performed by Boris Berezovsky.



Image attribution

Photo by C. Gallant, 2016.