The music of Russian romantic composer Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) is filled with stunningly beautiful melodies. One example can be heard in the third movement (Nocturne) of Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2. Let’s listen to a recording by the Emerson String Quartet. Consider the unique personality of each voice of the string quartet and notice the way the voices interact, creating a musical conversation. Pay attention to harmony and inner voices. Each time the melody returns, Borodin puts it in a slightly different harmonic package:
Did you hear the canon between the violin and cello, and later the two violins, in the passage starting at 4:54?
Repeating a melody (often a folk song) in slightly different harmonic and contrapuntal “packages” was a common technique for Russian composers. You can hear this in Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, written in 1881, the same year as the Second String Quartet, and in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony.
Ormandy and the Philadelphia Sound
Now, let’s hear Borodin’s Nocturne played by the full string section of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. For many years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive string sound…unusually dark, rich and lush. Some have attributed the origin of the sound to Ormandy’s predecessor, Leopold Stokowski, who conducted without a baton. This 2000 New York Times piece by James Oestreich offers more on the history of the “Philadelphia sound,” and raises questions about the extent to which an orchestra should hold onto a unique style versus adapting to the style of the composer. Listening to the lush, shimmering perfection of this classic recording, it’s easy to forget that debate entirely: