"In the Steppes of Central Asia" is a symphonic poem by Alexander Borodin, meant to illustrate the Mongolian landscape through instrumental music.
On his flight from Rome to Ulaanbaatar, for his historic papal visit to Mongolia, Pope Francis gave the faithful a musical recommendation. The Pontiff remarked upon the works of 19th-century Russian composer of the Romantic style Alexander Borodin, whose famous piece “In the Steppes of Central Asia” illustrates the unity between two cultures.
The Pope said that the expressive works of Borodin can help give visitors a feel for the region, which contains the “great culture” of the Mongolian people. According to Crux, Pope Francis commented:
“I think that it would do us well to understand this large and great silence,” he said, referring to Mongolia’s vast nomadic lands and culture of silence, saying, “It will help us to understand, but not with the intellect, with the senses.”
“Mongolia is understood with senses,” he said, and recommended listening to “the music of Borodin, who was able to express this length and greatness of Mongolia.”
Alexander Borodin was a famed Russian composer who is counted among “The Five,” a group of progressive Russian composers of the 19th century who advanced the Russian style of classical music. While Borodin is famed for his music, he was actually a chemist by trade and made several contributions to organic chemistry in his time. Music was instead his hobby, which he practiced in his free time or when he was ill.
The music of Borodin is steeped in the illustrative Romantic style that sought to evoke visuals in the minds of listeners. “In the Steppes of Central Asia” is a prime example of this effect, bringing to mind grand expansive landscapes through sound, including the clip-clop of traveling horses, all meant to bring to life the interactions between the Russians and the people of the steppe lands of the Caucasus.
“In the Steppes of Central Asia” falls into the category of a symphonic poem, an orchestral piece that seeks to tell a story through music. The work uses two different melodies, which represent the Russian and Mongolian peoples respectively. The Russian melody creates a peaceful atmosphere as the song opens, which slowly yields to the melody that represents Mongolia. The two melodies mingle and merge until the Russian melody is all that remains as it fades away, as if the line of travelers disappears into the distance.
Borodin himself outlines some of his intended illustrations in a note he left on the score, provided by the award winning musical blog, Classicalexburns:
“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.”
Pope Francis has previously talked about his love of music and his massive collection of vinyl records and CDs. Click here to read more about Pope Francis’ favorite songs.