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Alexander Borodin - The Forgotten Composer

Updated on November 22, 2017
Portrait by Repin
Portrait by Repin | Source


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

Bust of Alexander Borodin
Bust of Alexander Borodin | Source

"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?

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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

Ekaterina Borodina, the composer's wife.
Ekaterina Borodina, the composer's wife. | Source

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

Mily Balakirev, César Cu, Modest Mussorgsky ,Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin.
Mily Balakirev, César Cu, Modest Mussorgsky ,Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Borodin. | Source

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.

Later Life

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

 The Tomb of Alexander Borodin in Tikhvin Cemetery
The Tomb of Alexander Borodin in Tikhvin Cemetery | Source

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
  • Bogatyri
  • Mlada, Act IV

In The Steppes Of Central Asia

Reader Remarks

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    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Ron, I don't know, but I shouldn't think so.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I really appreciate this. I've loved Borodin's music for a long time, but knew nothing about his life. Interesting man! It's great that he was given a Tony award. I wonder if any other classical composers have that distinction.

    • Pawpawwrites profile image

      Jim 3 years ago from Kansas

      I learned something today. I knew nothing of him before.

    • DealForALiving profile image

      Sam Deal 3 years ago from Earth

      This was my first exposure to Borodin, so thank you for the introduction.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 3 years ago from USA

      Until I read this article I had never heard of this man of many talents. I listened to his In The Steppes Of Central Asia piece and it is beautiful. Thank you for introducing this artist of music to us.

    • profile image

      Colin323 3 years ago

      Very interesting indeed, and I learned something today about a composer, whose work I enjoy, but knew nothing about. He sounds a lovely fella!

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 3 years ago from Hollister, MO

      I love learning new things each day. I do that here at HubPages. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

    • BrianRS profile image

      Brian Stephens 3 years ago from France

      I have not heard of him before either, but he sounds like a very clever and talented man. I am in awe of anyone that speak more than one language, never mind several plus his work in both chemistry and music....very impressive.

    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Thanks, Brit, He was never mentioned in our school's music classes.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      What a lovely and informative article. I remember learning a little about him at school (a long, long time ago!)

    • Snakesmum profile image

      Jean DAndrea 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Thanks for visiting Elsie. He's not the best known composer, but his music resonates with me.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 3 years ago from New Zealand

      Great hub. Sorry I didn't even know the name, so there you are I'm another person to added to the list for a forgotten composer. After all that was many years ago he was born, thanks for sharing next time I see the name I will know who it is.