In the Steppes of Central Asia (Russian: В средней Азии, V srednyeĭ Azii, literally In Central Asia) is the common English title for a “musical tableau” (or symphonic poem) by Alexander Borodin, composed in 1880.
Three main themes from the composition
In the Steppes of Central Asia (7:38)
Courtesy of Musopen
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The work was originally intended to be presented as one of several tableaux vivants to celebrate the silver anniversary of the reign of Alexander II of Russia, who had done much to expand the Russian Empire eastward. The intended production never occurred, but the work itself became, and has remained, a concert favorite ever since its first concert performance, on 20 April 1880 (8 April Old style) in St. Petersburg by the orchestra of the Russian Opera under the conductorship of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The work is dedicated to Franz Liszt.
This orchestral work idyllically depicts an interaction of Russians and Asians in the steppe lands of the Caucasus. A caravan of Central Asians is crossing the desert under the protection of Russian troops. The opening theme, representing the Russians, is heard first (see chart of themes); then we hear the strains of an ornamented eastern melody on English horn, representing the Asians. These two melodies eventually are combined contrapuntally. Amidst these two ethnic melodies is heard a “traveling” theme in pizzicato that represents the plodding hoofs of the horses and camels. At the end only the Russian theme is heard.
The piece is scored for two flutes, oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns in F, two trumpets in F, two trombones, bass trombone, timpani and strings.
Somewhat unusually, the two scores available via the IMSLP link below show different tempo markings at the start. The Eulenberg score is marked “Allegretto con moto”, whereas the Russian Muzyka score shows “Allegro con moto”.
Borodin also transcribed the piece for piano four hands.
The composer provided the following description in a note to the score:
“In the silence of the monotonous steppes of Central Asia is heard the unfamiliar sound of a peaceful Russian song. From the distance we hear the approach of horses and camels and the bizarre and melancholy notes of an oriental melody. A caravan approaches, escorted by Russian soldiers, and continues safely on its way through the immense desert. It disappears slowly. The notes of the Russian and Asiatic melodies join in a common harmony, which dies away as the caravan disappears in the distance.”