USSR State Academic Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov
In 1880, as part of the celebrations for the 25th year of Tsar Alexander II's reign, two producers were supposed to contribute a series of small dramas glorifying Alexander's successes. Twelve Russian composers were contacted to provide incidental music for these scenes. The producers dropped out of sight before the festival, and Borodin seems to have been the only composer who responded to the call. The musical picture he wrote for the occasion, In the Steppes of Central Asia, became famous in its own right almost immediately, both at home and elsewhere.
The work is dedicated to Franz Liszt, master of the programmatic orchestral tone poem, a form to which Borodin brings a distinctly Russian slant. The program depicts a caravan of Central Asian traders, escorted across the desert by Russian soldiers. A quiet, bare high E on the violins, suggesting the desolation of the landscape, opens the work. A Russian folk song representing the military guard plays as if from a distance, first on clarinet, then on horn. The English horn then plays a lilting, oriental-inflected theme representing the native merchants, while a chromatic pizzicato accompaniment in the strings suggests the tread of camels across the desert. Each theme becomes more elaborate and louder as the trading party approaches, until finally the two tunes interweave in counterpoint, representing (in Borodin's words) "the peace-loving songs of the conquered and their conquerors join[ed] in harmony." After this climax, both themes recede, leaving the high E alone in the desert. Borodin's original program, particularly the part quoted above and a reference to the "terrible fighting force" of the Russian army, was considerably altered by the time of an 1882 performance in Moscow, as the tsar's government was ill disposed to discussing its colonial designs on Central Asia. To modern listeners, however, In the Steppes of Central Asia is simply a charming, well-crafted, exotically inflected sonic portrait.