Borodin is best known for the lyrical themes in his most famous pieces, the Polovtsian Dances from
Prince Igor, the tone poem In Central Asia, the Nocturne from the String Quartet No. 2. But he also
showed originality in his formal designs and orchestration, even in his first large-scale works, and he
was well-trained in counterpoint. He was a complete composer and well aware of European musical
currents and composers.
- Getting away from it all: Unlike the other paid-up members of the Mighty Handful, Borodin was an avid chamber musician, who played for recreation whenever he could. Two of his best pieces are his string quartets. The C Minor Piano Quartet, written while Borodin was in Heidelberg, is another masterpiece.
- Symphonies: Most critics acknowledge the Symphony No. 2 in B Minor to be Borodin's greatest completed work. The earlier E-Flat Major Symphony is pretty good, too, which makes it all the sadder that the composer didn't live to finish his third symphony, or even write down the first movement, which he played at the piano for friends.
- Puzzle without pieces: Many unfinished operas are missing a couple of scenes or orchestration, but Borodin left Prince Igor in a much more complicated state. Working from a scenario (plan), he wrote the libretto as he worked on each scene instead of all at once. So when he died, he hadn't even left a complete libretto to the opera. And, since he began in the middle and worked on the scenes that most inspired him first, there are continuity gaps in the story and we don't even find out what happened to two major characters.
- In 1885, Borodin asked Rimsky-Korsakov to help him organize his sketches for the opera. After the composer's death, Rimsky and his student, Alexander Glazunov took on the task of finishing it. Borodin had orchestrated about 10 numbers, including the famous Polovtsian Dances (which Rimsky had also helped with, because Borodin was chronically short of time). Rimsky orchestrated what remained in Acts I, II, and IV, while Glazunov composed most of Act III (over 1200 measures) and the overture. (The overture, though, was based on Borodin's ideas.) More controversially, the pair cut almost 1700 measures of music, mostly to improve continuity and coherence.
- Kiss me, I'm Polovtsian: “Polovtsy” is the Russian word for the Cuman people, who conquered and settled a wide area of central Asia extending all the way to the Black Sea. They fought the “Rus” principalities, from which the modern state of Russia later claimed descent. The Polovtsian Dances in Prince Igor are an entertainment ordered by Khan Konchak for Igor, his prisoner and guest.