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Alexander Borodin - The Forgotten Composer
Born on 12th November, 1833, the illegitimate son of a Georgian Prince, Luke Gedeoneshvilli, and a Russian woman, Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin became one of "The Five", or the "Mighty Handful" of Russian romantic composers.
His father, although not giving Alexander his name, did give him a solid education, including piano lessons.
Borodin became a doctor and chemist, and spent some years as a surgeon. Borodin was one of the founders of a Medical School for women in St. Petersburg, and was always interested in improving education in Russia.
His career path was medicine and chemistry, and he became a Professor of Chemistry in St. Petersburg in 1862. As music was only a secondary interest, he was not the most prolific of composers, although he did become a prominent Romantic Period composer.
A Bust Of The Composer
"Kismet" Uses Borodin's Music
The Broadway musical "Kismet", also later a film, contains songs based on some of Borodin's most popular pieces.
The songs "Stranger in Paradise", "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and "And This Is My Beloved" are the best remembered pieces from this film, and used parts of "Prince Igor", and "In the Steppes of Central Asia".
In 1954 the composer was awarded a Tony Award, posthumously, for his contributions to this show.
Poll on Borodin's Music
Which of Alexander Borodin's Music is your favourite?
Best Known Compositions
Although not a really prolific composer, some of Borodin's compositions are very well known.
- In the Steppes of Central Asia
- Symphony No. 1
- Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
- String Quartet No. 1
- String Quartet No. 2
- Symphony No. 1
- Nocturne For Strings
- Symphony No 2
The Composer's Wife
Life and Study
Alexander Borodin was a talented man with a gift for languages, speaking French, German, English, Italian and of course Russian. He could play the piano, violin, cello, and flute, although he did not have formal training in them.
While a surgeon in the army, he met Modest Mussorgsky, and after his time as a surgeon, went to Heidelberg for further study. He also spent some time in Italy, doing research.
While studying in Heidelberg, Germany, Borodin met a pianist, Ekaterina Protopova, who became his wife. She was the person who introduced Borodin to women's rights, which he later became passionate about.
He did not compose any music until after 1863, when he met the composer Mily Balakirv, who inspired him to write nationalistic music. Four composers Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev, along with Borodin became "The Five", a group which concentrated on nationalistic Russian music.
As Professor of Chemistry at St. Petersberg, he was a popular teacher, interested in the welfare of his students, and helping them when he could. He conducted research, and a chemical discovery, the "Borodin Reaction" is named after him in Russia. He is responsible for many papers and is known for his work on aldehydes.
Five Russian Composers
Music Was A Hobby
"Music is a pastime, a relaxation from more serious occupations." - Alexander Borodin.
As a full time Professor of Chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg, the composer did not have a great deal of time to give to his music. It took him from 1863 to 1869 to compose his first symphony, but it was a success when first performed, and was conducted by his friend Balakirev.
Borodin started his second symphony in 1869, and it was finally completed in 1874, five years later. In 1869, he also began arguably his best known work, the opera "Prince Igor". Composition of this continued for many years, and it was still unfinished at his death in 1887.
As well as his position as Professor of Chemistry at the Academy, Alexander Borodin was a philanthropist, who loved helping others. Both he and his wife were strong proponents of rights for women and education for everyone. Unfortunately, Ekaterina had suffered from poor health for most of her life, and in the 1880's, Alexander also began to suffer from ill health, which often left him too tired to compose.
His opera, "Prince Igor", unfinished at his death, was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. The third symphony was also completed by Glazunov.
Borodin had a short, but full life, dying at the age of 53, on 27th February, 1887. He suffered a heart attack shortly after dancing, at a party in his house. His wife died three months later.
On his burial casket there is a silver plate from his women students which reads: "To the Founder, Protector and Defender of the School of Medicine for Women."
The Composer's Tomb
A Few More Of Borodin's Compositions
Although not a complete list of Alexander Borodin's works, these are a few more of his better known pieces.
Symphonies & Chamber Music
- Symphony No. 3 in A minor
- Quartet for flute, oboe, viola, and cello
- Piano Trio in D major
- Piano Quintet in C minor
- Tarantella D major
- Petite Suite 2
- Arabian melody
- For the shores of your far homeland
- The Sea Princess
- The beautiful girl does not love me
- The Tsar's Bride
- Prince Igor
- Mlada, Act IV