Lesson Tutor: Biography of classical composer Alexander Borodin

Classical Composer Biography : Alexander Borodin
by Betty Fry

Alexander Borodin, composer of ‘Prince Igor’, one of the greatest of all Russian operas, once said that for him ‘music was a pastime, a relaxation from more serious occupations’.

Those ‘more serious occupations’ were the disciplines of science and medicine, in which he also achieved international fame.

Born in 1833 in St. Petersburg, he was the illegitimate son of the Russian Prince Gedianov and his 24 year old mistress Madame Antonova, and although a very talented child, he was not, it seems, a musical prodigy.

By his teens he could speak German, French, Italian and English, as well as play the piano, flute and cello.

With his friend and fellow student Mikhail Shchiglev he would perform arrangements for four hands of music by HaydnBeethoven and Mendelssohn. But even in those student days, his enduring passion was for experimental chemistry.

In 1850 he entered the Medico-Surgical Academy at St. Petersburg, where he studied anatomy, botany, chemistry, crystallography and zoology. On graduation he spent a year as house surgeon in a military hospital, followed by three years of more advanced scientific studies in western Europe.

In 1862 he succeeded to the professorship at the Academy, and ten years later played a leading role in establishing medical courses for women. He then spent the rest of his life lecturing and supervising student work.

How Borodin managed to find time for music remains a mystery, but in 1864 he met Balakirev, and through him Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. In this way he became a member of ‘The Five’ who were also sometimes called ‘The Mighty Handful’.

Musically speaking he was the least committed, but the most gifted of the five composers. As a group they were opposed to the academicians and to the music of Richard Wagner. They saw themselves as Russian patriots, standing for spontaneity and ‘truth in music’.

In 1863 Borodin married Ekaterina Protopopova, a brilliant young pianist. They met in Germany and their friendship blossomed into love on a trip to Baden-Baden where they were engaged.

Their home life was chaotic; their apartment often full of uninvited guests, and there were no proper meal times. But Borodin was a happy husband, devoted to Ekaterina, and never complained.

And although he was the last member of ‘The Five’, and acknowledged himself as a dilettante, he was in the first rank as a scientist. As well as being a professor at the academy of medicine in St. Petersburg, he was a frequent speaker at seminars and conferences all over Europe.

Composition was a hobby, carried on joyously and chaotically among the friends and family who constantly invaded his home on the grounds of the academy. His greatest work, the opera ‘Prince Igor’ remained unfinished at his death in 1887, after eighteen years on the drawing board. It was finally completed and orchestrated by Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov.

‘Prince Igor’  is set in the 12th century, when a barbarous and nomadic people known as the Polovtsians invaded southern Russia. The story concerns the capture of Prince Igor and son Vladimir of Russia by the Polovtsian leader, Khan Konchak. He entertains his prisoners lavishly and calls on his slaves to perform the famous Polovtsian dances, which provide a thrilling climax to the second act.

I have been listening to these dances as I worked on this article, and the music was lovely. It started with a fast spiraling of notes on the woodwind, accompanied by a broad string melody, while the horns and percussion added excitement.

The first dance is introduced by the percussion and, by contrast, is much slower. Its strong, heavy rhythm wonderfully depicts the barbarous character of the Polovtsian people.

This is followed by a quicker, bouncier dance. Four descending notes on strings provide an atmosphere of intrigue, which then dissolves into the gentle and lyrical ‘Maidens’ Dance’ from which came the lovely melody we know as ‘A Stranger in Paradise’. And finally, brief echoes from preceding sections bring the set to a momentous climax.

And then I chose to play the ‘Third Movement ‘Nocturne’ from the String Quartet No.2 in D major’.

Borodin began this string quartet in 1881, soon after the death of fellow composer Modest Mussorgsky, and this heart-felt ‘nocturne’ or ‘night piece’ may have been prompted by the loss.

The cello glides straight in with one of the loveliest of all melodies, which I soon recognized as ‘And this is my Beloved’, and then soared heavenwards on the first violin.

The bittersweet tone presently gives way to a passionate climax, subsides, and proceeds to the most tender of endings.

Although I have not yet been able to hear the music from ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’, I understand it is the most important of Borodin’s orchestral works. But I have seen a painting by another citizen of St. Petersburg, Ilya Repin which depicts a religious procession in Kursk, and from that view I can somehow hear the tone poem Borodin composed in which the slow approach and passing of a Kurdish caravan is effectively portrayed. One painted, the other composed around 1880, each might have been inspired by the other, to produce such work. 

Alexander Borodin was a much loved and greatly respected figure, but heart attacks and a bout of cholera seriously undermined his health. However it was entirely in character that early in 1887 he returned from an important academic engagement to attend a fancy dress ball at the Academy.

Wearing a red shirt and high boots, Russia’s national costume, he joined the dancing in great good humor and high spirits. Then, at midnight, as the festivities reached a climax, he fell back, and within a few seconds died from heart failure.

Borodin’s music is full of romantic charm and enticing melody, and much of it also rings with the pageantry and landscape of old Russia; of onion-domed churches, richly decorated icons, and the vastness of the land.

Because he chose to devote most of his energies to his full time career as an experimental chemist and running a scientific institute in St. Petersburg , Borodin’s reputation as a major composer rests on a remarkably small number of works, but they are of such originality and high quality that his place in the annals of Russian music is assured.

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