In the spring of 1869, eminent art and music critic Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (1824 – 1906), formerly the ideologue of the famous Circle of Petersburg musicians, known as “The Mighty Five”, suggested that Borodin write an opera. Stasov chose as plot for the opera an epic subject from the ancient Russian history that in his opinion corresponded to the creative naturelle of the young composer, who at the time had already composed symphonies and romances. The scenario for the libretto, initially outlined by Stasov himself, was based on the famous Old-Russian literary epic, The Lay of the Host of Igor (1185-1187). Borodin took the advice and accepted Stasov’s outline as the basis for his operatic work. In the compilation of the libretto he adopted the approach of a scientist: he studied a number of historical sources, including some chronicles, the ancient novelettes Zadonshchina and Mamayevo poboishte (“The Battle of Kulikovo”), historical studies, legends, music of the Polovtsian descendants, and even visited some of the the sites where these ancient events took place.
The opera relates of the failed raid of Severian prince Igor Svyatoslavich (d. 1202) against the Polovtsians of the Don River region, about his capture and escape from captivity. The action is situated in Putyvl, Igor’s original principality, and also in the Polovtsian camp. Borodin has been writing the opera for many years – the work continued in short intervals between his numerous professional obligations: pedagogical, administrative and social activities, and scientific research. On the whole, he spent eighteen years writing the opera.
The Polovtsian Dances themselves were composed in the summer of 1875, while Borodin was taking a period of rest in Moscow. Their presentation in the autumn to the colleagues and friends from the “Mighty Handful” elicited real furor. The opera, however, was never to be completed in its entirety. It was only after Borodin’s death that Alexander Glazunov completed the opera under the remaining drafts, and Rimsky-Korsakov orchestrated most of the clavier. Knyaz Igor premiered on 23 October (4 November) 1890, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and left the audience literally flabbergasted. In 1909, Borodin’s music attracted the interest of leading Russian choreographer-innovator Mikhail Fokin (Michel Fokine), who persistently sought ways to expand the repertoire of the Russian Seasons Series organized by Dyagilev in Paris. Fokin produced the Polovtsian Dances in a new choreography, careful not to employ anything from the previous performance of L. Ivanov. He managed not only to embody his incredible choreographic fantasies in the dance, but also to evoke a convincing representation of musical imagery.
The performance premiered during the Russian Seasons at the Paris Chatelet Theatre on 19 May 1909, and on September 22 of the same year, it was used in the revival of Prince Igor on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. The new production was received enthusiastically both by critics and in the theatrical circles.