To Russia, with love; or, I can’t seem to get the Polovtsian Dances out of my head

February 12, 2014 at 12:59 am (Ballet, Music, Russophilia)

Why does this phenomenon persist?

It could be due to my watching this over and over again:

And this:

Finally, the Polovtsian Dance sequence was the first music heard in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics:


(Will video eventually be available of this rather amazing spectacle? I certainly hope so!)

The Polovtsian Dance sequence is probably the most famous part of Alexander Borodin‘s  Prince Igor. This masterpiece is currently being staged at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1917. It’s being offered as part of the Metropolitan Opera in HD series and can be seen in select local theaters on Saturday March 1. (Will I be there? You bet I will!)


Alexander Borodin, 1833-1887


I first heard the music of Alexander Borodin when I saw the 1955 film Kismet. I was eleven at the time, and I was simply blown away by this movie. I thought I’d never seen or heard anything so romantic and so utterly beautiful. What does an MGM musical have to do  with a Russian composer? An article on the Classic FM site explains.

In the second video above, the one depicting the grand re-opening of the Bolshoi Theater in 2011, you get a lot more than just the Polovtsian Dances. In particular, be sure to watch the excerpt from the ballet Spartacus (at 27:38). (The segment that precedes it, the ballroom scene from Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, is also worth your while – a truly opulent production.) In this same video, I’d like to note also the presence in the audience of Sergei Filin (first row second from the right, next to the empty chair, at 1:00). A former principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Filin had become the company’s artistic director in Moscow when, in January of 2013, he was the victim of an acid attack. He has had numerous surgeries since then, but my understanding is that he has lost a great deal of his eyesight – hopefully, not all of it. (The malefactors were caught and tried and are currently serving time.)

In his prime, Sergei Filin was a wonderful dancer. A number of tributes to his artistry have been posted on YouTube. I’m especially fond of this one:


My fascination with Russian culture derives in part from my own background. All four of my grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine in the early years of the twentieth century. At the time that they made this epic journey, Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire.

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

When reading David Brown’s biography of Tchaikovsky, I learned that Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is nicknamed Little Russian. The final movement –  an absolute joy! – makes use of “The Crane,” a Ukrainian folk song. Here is the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, who was in his time a tireless champion of Russian music:

(As best as I can determine, the USSR Symphony Orchestra is now known as The Russian State Symphony Orchestra. This puts me in mind of an observation made by Neal Ascherson in his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. Russia, he says, is a place “…where the past is said to be unpredictable.”)

So now, of course, I can’t get the finale of the Little Russian Symphony out of my head. No matter -I’ll gladly let it dwell there, right alongside the Polovtsian Dances.

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