Alexander Porfir′yevich Borodin

Composer Alexander Porfir′yevich Borodin

Full-time chemist, part time genius composer.

Vital Statistics
Oct. 31, 1833, St. Petersburg
Feb. 18, 1887, St. Petersburg
Performed As:
Pianist, Cellist, Flutist (privately)
During Lifetime:
The Russian Empire conquers most of Central Asia beginning with the southern Caucasus and Khazakhstan in the 1820s-40s, to “Russian Turkestan” (Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) in 1864-1885, and the northern Caucasus, by 1877. Competition with Great Britain for imperial influence in the territories of the Ottoman Empire (the so-called “Great Game”) leads to the Crimean War, 1853- 1856.
Biographical Outline
  • Bastard out of Petersburg: Born the illegitmate son of a Georgian prince, the boy is registered (as is
    the custom of the time), to Porfiry Ionovich Borodin, one of his father's serfs. Alexander lives with
    his natural father and mother in St. Petersburg until 1839, when the prince arranges a marriage for his
    mother to an elderly physician (in order to gain her an inheritance). The doctor dies less than two years later and the prince in 1843. Before his death, the prince emancipates his son from serfdom.
  • Youth, 1839-49: Borodin is home-schooled by his mother (Avdot′ya Konstantinovna Antonova). He
    can pick out tunes at the piano from an early age and his mother hires a flutist from the local regimental band to give her son lessons. In 1846, he takes piano lessons. Wanting to play chamber music, Borodin teaches himself the cello. His first compositions are published in 1849.
  • Chemical attraction, 1850-58: Borodin enrolls in the St. Petersburg Medical-Surgical Academy. But
    he is attracted to chemistry from the start. He graduates the physician program with distinction in 1856 and is posted as a junior officer to the Preobrazhenskiy Regiment, where Modest Musorgsky is the duty officer. The next summer, Borodin is sent on a four-month European tour by the Academy's chemistry department. He decides to devote himself full-time to chemistry and, in 1858, he publishes his first scientific paper and defends his dissertation.
  • Heidelberg idyll, 1859-61: The Academy sends Borodin to Heidelberg and he settles in to a chemistry lab there, but also attends a lot of concerts, plays chamber music, and composes on the side. In summer 1860 he makes sightseeing tours, staying in Paris from November 1860 to April 1861. Returning to Heidelberg in May, he meets a Russian pianist with tuberculosis, Yekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova. They become engaged in August.
  • Meeting Balakirev, 1862-69: After spending the winter in Italy, so that Yekaterina can recover her
    health, Borodin begins to teach at the Academy and marries Yekaterina. After the retirement of his
    mentor, Nikolai Zinin, in 1864, Borodin succeeds him in the chair of chemistry and is raised to full
    professor. In October 1862, he meets the pianist and composer Mily Balakirev and joins his circle,
    which includes his old pal Musorgsky, Cesar Cui, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Balakirev starts him
    on a symphony, and conducts it at a Russian Musical Society concert in January, 1869. That year, he
    and Yekaterina adopt a seven-year-old girl.
  • Composition or chemistry?, 1869-1873: Borodin enthusiastically begins work on Prince Igor, based
    on a scenario the librarian/ journalist Vladimir Stasov derived from a 12th-century epic poem. But,
    uncertain about his libretto and consumed by his work as a chemist, he sets it aside in 1870 and
    takes up work on his B Minor Symphony (1873). He finally leaves research, frustrated by the better
    equipped, better financed Western European labs.
  • Prince Igor and other projects, 1874-79: Borodin returns to his opera in 1874-75 and 1878-79. The
    premiere of the B Minor symphony in 1877, is a modest success, but Rimsky-Korsakov's concert of
    excerpts from Prince Igor and an edited version of the symphony establishes its reputation. During a
    brief trip to Germany, he meets Liszt, who encourages him.
  • Running out of time, 1880-87: Borodin composes the tone poem In Central Asia in 1880 and finishes his Second String Quartet in D Major in 1881, but teaching duties prevent his completing anything else during his life. At a costume ball given by the Academy, he suffers heart failure and dies on the dance floor.
Fun Facts
  • Feminist: Borodin took a leading role in teaching advanced medicine to women students, after the government authorized them to receive degrees in obstetrics in the 1870s. In the reaction to the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the government tried to rescind their policy, but Borodin worked intensely to prevent that.
  • Name-dropping: Borodin's best friend in Heidelberg, and his companion on his sightseeing trips, was
    the chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev, who later invented the periodic table.
  • Linguist: Borodin was fluent in German, French, English, and Italian.
  • Absent-minded professor: In 1876, when the Russian Musical Society planned the premiere of the B-
    Minor Symphony, Borodin discovered that he had misplaced the parts for two of the movements and
    had to re-orchestrate them, moving the premiere to 1877.
  • The Mighty Five: The usual name given to the five composers in Mily Balakirev's circle (including
    Balakirev himself) is the Mighty Handful (Moguchaya Kuchka). The term was coined by Vladimir
    Stasov, who was the group's self-appointed polemicist and publicist. He believed in fostering a national Russian musical art, especially in opera, and his ideas on what that would entail influenced the group and Western European views of the Five. Stasov was involved in the birth of many of the composers' projects, including Prince Igor. However, Borodin, like Rimsky-Korsakov, went his own way, and often didn't conform to the group's pronouncements.
  • Helping hand: Liszt arranged the premiere of Borodin's First Symphony outside Russia (in Baden
    Baden), and he also encouraged a Belgian countess friend who admired Borodin. Her advocacy brought
    Borodin enough performances that he had to join the French copyright society to secure royalty
    payments. In gratitude for Liszt's interest, Borodin dedicated the tone poem In Central Asia to him.
  • Posterity: Borodin has a quartet named after him; his music was also adapted for the 1954 orientalist-themed Broadway musical Kismet, which received the Tony Award that season.
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music

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.
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