About this work
When Borodin began sketching out his first string quartet in 1873, he wanted to produce something identifiably Russian, rather than follow German traditions slavishly. Yet he was not fully committed to the musical nationalism of Mussorgsky and other members of the Mighty Handful. The resulting quartet contains many Slavic touches, written as it was during the long gestation of Borodin's opera Prince Igor, but it takes a predominantly Classical (yes, German) form. Borodin had the quartet sketched out by 1875, did substantial work on it in 1877, and completed it in 1879.
The first movement is in sonata form, prefaced by a Moderato introduction that could almost pass for a Russian folk song, although the melody seems to be original. From the beginning, Borodin is willing to use all four instruments melodically, although he tends to relegate the cello to a supporting role that enriches the group's sonority. The movement's main portion, Allegro, begins with a flowing theme drawn from the finale of Beethoven's String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130. It sounds like full-fledged Borodin, though, with its mid-phrase grace notes. The theme is passed among the violins and the cello in little variants on its basic form. The second subject flows just as freely if slightly more urgently, often over a drone bass. It's all light and good-natured, only occasionally building much tension. Things do get exciting early in the development when the cello leads the way into a little fugue, but the rest of the development simply maintains the varied-repetition format Borodin established early in the exposition, breaking into separate sections of mildly contrasting character. After the full recapitulation, the movement ends with a long, hushed coda.
The Andante con moto begins with a slightly folk-like melody. Its viola counterpoint is derived directly from a Russian folk tune, "The Song of the Sparrow Hills" (this song also found its way into Prince Igor). The movement becomes a series of mild variants on this and the opening, original melody. In the song, an eagle holds a crow in its talons; the crow, in mortal danger himself, tells the eagle of having seen a young hero lying dead, over whom hovered three songbirds representing the hero's mother, sister, and wife. Borodin may have patterned his movement after the song's subject matter. The first portion, laying out the themes, would be associated with the eagle and the crow; the fugato in the middle depicts the hero and the distraught songbirds; and the ending, an impassioned rephrasing of the opening material, deals with their grief.
Borodin leaves all this behind when he launches the Scherzo, an almost perpetual-motion presto that remains light-hearted, never threatening. The middle trio section stretches out and employs some striking instrumental effects, notably violin harmonics. The music alternately evokes a glass harmonica and, with a busier accompaniment, a music box.
The finale is another sonata-form movement, again with a slow, haunted introduction. The main Allegro risoluto material bursts in with a driving, nervous, sharply accented theme. This subsides long enough for Borodin to introduce a second subject of repeated, hesitant little phrases. These themes develop through Borodin's technique of varied repetition, the second subject becoming more assertive when it reappears and the first subject binding the movement together with its urgent momentum, which culminates in a frenzied yet uplifting coda. Hints of the second movement lend the work an overall unity.