Born the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince and his mistress, and registered as a serf on his father’s country estate, Alexander Borodin nevertheless enjoyed a cultured education in which the natural sciences vied for attention with musical accomplishments – a pattern that was to continue for the rest of his life. A solid medical training came first. In 1850 he began his training as a physician at St Petersburg’s Medical Surgical Academy, graduating with distinction six years later and returning to the Academy as a professor of chemistry from 1864.
By then music had established an equally important role in his life. Having played chamber music with fellow amateurs and written several works for small ensemble, he was introduced to the inspirational Mily Balakirev in October 1862 and became the last composer to join the Balakirev circle (later known as ‘The Five’ or ‘The Mighty Handful’). Borodin already knew Modest Musorgsky and was warmly welcomed by its two other members, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and César Cui.
Perhaps the most robustly gifted of the circle, Borodin took up Balakirev’s challenge and in 1867 completed his E flat major Symphony, the first major specimen of a short-lived Russian nationalism that also embraced the rhythmic energy of Beethoven, the delicacy of Schumann and, in its chattery scherzo, the fantasy of Berlioz.
Following the symphony’s successful 1869 premiere, Borodin found an ideal subject for a Russian grand opera in the supposed 12th-century epic The Lay of Igor’s Host; preliminary work on Prince Igor was abandoned after several numbers had been sketched in 1870. A Second Symphony incorporated some of the opera’s initial ideas and reflected its heroic stance through huge brass fanfares and sinuous melodies. The story of Prince Igor, resumed in 1874, runs like a thread through the rest of Borodin’s life. Isolated numbers were performed at various concerts organised by the Free School of Music, including the exotic and rhythmically vital evocation of an eastern culture in the ‘Polovtsian Dances’ – completed in 1879 with assistance from his fellow composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov.
By the beginning of the 1880s, having already made several honourable contributions to chemistry, Borodin was finding it increasingly difficult to balance his musical and medical responsibilities – a situation compounded by his wife’s ill health and a household constantly full of preying relatives and countless cats. He did nevertheless manage to produce one of the most carefree and melodically inspired string quartets in the repertory, his Second (1881), to celebrate 20 years of happy marriage to the pianist Yekaterina Protopopova.
Quite unexpectedly, minutes after dancing a waltz at a candlelight ball organised by the Medical-Surgical Academy in February 1887, he collapsed and died of heart failure. His musical legacy, with the performing version of Prince Igor (completed shortly after his death by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov) as its centrepiece, remains small in output but big in vital inspiration.
Profile © David Nice