Alexander Borodin

1833 1887

Alexander Borodin



Borodin was a Russian Romantic composer and chemist and a member of Balakirev’s elite group of composers, known as ‘the Five’. Despite the fact that Borodin’s career as a chemist overshadowed his career as a composer, he was very successful and composed many successful and popular masterpieces, including several chamber music works and his Russian opera,Prince Igor.

Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, Luka Stepanovich Gedianov and was baptised as one of his father’s serf’s sons, Porfiry Ionovich Borodin. Although Borodin was raised as the son of a serf, he received a much superior education than a serf’s son would typically have had. He leaned how to speak several languages fluently and learned the flute and cello. He and Mikhail Shchiglev, Borodin’s lifelong friend who went on to become an successful musician and teacher, received piano lessons together in their youth .They both became very much interested in the music of composers such asBeethoven, Haydn and Mendelssohn and began performing their music. Borodin also began composing in his early years and his first composition, a polka for piano titled ‘Hélène’, was written at the age of nine.

Borodin continued composing throughout his youth however he had also developed an interest in chemistry and natural sciences and this overshadowed his love of music. He entered the St Petersburg’s Medical-Surgical Academy in 1850 to train as a physician. In 1856 he graduated with distinction after attracting the attention of many of his professors, including the chair of chemistry, Nikolay Nikolayevich Zinin. Despite this, Borodin was still quite dedicated to composition during his time at the Academy and he continued to compose minor works as a student, including a Piano Quintet (1862). After an encounter with Mily Balakirev in 1862, Borodin joined the Balakirev circle of young composers. This included Borodin,Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Cui and were later known asMoguchaya kuchka, ‘The Five’, also translatable as ‘The Mighty Handful’. This collaboration prompted Borodin to devote more time and effort into his career as a composer and he began to write larger and more significant works.

From 1862 Borodin possessed a renewed enthusiasm for composition, although his priorities still lay within the field of science. In 1867, he composed the song Spyashchaya knyazhna (‘The Sleeping Princess’) as well as his first music for theatre,Bogatïri (‘The Heroic Warriors’). The libretto of The Heroic Warriors was written by poet, Viktor Krïlov and imitates ‘Russian heroic opera’. The production was an overall failure, however, as audiences failed to realise that the work was a pastiche. Approximately one quarter of the score was composed by Borodin, the remainder was adapted from popular works from composers including Rossini and Verdi. The Heroic Warriors was performed only once, at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow in November 1867.

 During the same year, he also wrote his First Symphony; his Second Symphony followed in 1877. Within the time that he had completed his first two symphonies, he had also completed songs includingMorskaya tsarevna (‘The Sea Princess’),Pesnya tyomnogo lesa (‘Song of the Dark Forest’) and Fal′shivaya nota (‘The False Note’).

Unlike his companions within the Balakirev circle, Borodin had always associated himself with absolute music. He was an enthusiastic performer and composer of chamber music and he nurtured this passion during his studies at Heidelberg. He produced a handful of early chamber works, including a Piano Quintet and a String Sextet and it is likely that he based the structure and orchestration on similar works byMendelssohn. In 1875, he began his first String Quartet and his second followed 1881. The Five were dissatisfied with Borodin’s quartets, which nevertheless each show richness in texture and form.

Another majorly popular work of Borodin’s was his opera, Prince Igor, celebrated for its beautiful Polovtsian Dances. He began working on this work around 1868 however he did not manage to complete the work before his death in 1887. The work proved to be a slow process for several reasons, mainly because the majority of his time was consumed by his career as a chemist and other musical projects. During Borodin’s lifetime,Rimsky-Korsakov had begun to assemble a vocal score and other parts of the work as an effort to encourage Borodin to complete the work at a speedy pace. After Borodin’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov preparedPrince Igor for production and publication by orchestrating Borodin’s manuscripts and filling in missing sections. It premiered in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. At the time, it was over shadowed byTchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, which premiered at the same time. Nonetheless, it became one of Borodin’s most popular and renowned works.

The composer once spoke of his ideas regarding the composition of opera, stating that ‘the voices must be foremost, the orchestra secondary’. This technique is indeed applied inPrince Igor and can be heard throughout. The opera consists of two contrasting idioms, one of which is based on Russian folksong to represent the Russian characters. The other portrays exotic ideas, made up of dissonant and chromatic harmony, melismatic vocals and augmented 2nd melodic intervals.Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila is a Russian opera of the era that can be compared toPrince Igor for its similar style and structure.

Borodin's fame outside of Russia was largely encouraged by the help of Franz Liszt who, in 1880, arranged a performance of Symphony No. 1 in Germany. Because of Borodin's popularity, his music influenced some of the most significant musical figures in history, includingDebussy and Ravel. Despite the fact that Borodin had dedicated his career to science, the impact he left as a composer is astonishing. Known for its rich orchestration, strong lyricism and recognisable Russian style, Borodin's music will amaze music composers, scholars and enthusiasts for years to come.

By 1880, Borodin had completed In the Steppes of Central Asia, a work regarded as one of his most successful. It is comprised of two distinctive tunes which complement one another during the climax of the work. The first piece is quite simple and harmonically diatonic and is used to represent Russia. The second, which is more dissonant and complex, depicts the East. This work is most likely dedicated to Liszt and this is evident from the Borodin’s use of orchestration inIn the Steppes of Central Asia. In Particular, he uses both straight and syncopated pizzicato in low and high strings, a feature of the first of Liszt’s Two Episodesfrom Lenau’s Faust.