Ilya Repin, Portrait of Alexander Borodin, 1888, State Russian Museum, St. – Petersburg.

Alexander Borodin was one of the rare talents to master two vocations: chemistry and music. A naturally gifted composer and a brilliant scientist, he was a member of ‘The Mighty Handful’, a group of composers dedicated to celebrating Russian heritage through their music. Unfortunately, he is not that well-known in the West. Time to breach this gap! Our contributor and editor of the DiscMuseum Anna Lumbroso has prepared a summary of life and work of this outstanding Russian composer.

Nothing predestined Borodin to a career as a chemist or a composer. Born in St. Petersburg, he was the illegitimate son of a Prince. His father was a descendant of the “Gedianov” family, and his mother, thirty-five years younger than the Prince, was the daughter of a soldier. To save public embarrassment, his father registered the child under the name of one of his serfs, Porfiry Borodin, while his mother provided for his education.

As a child, Borodin devoted his time to both his passions: music and chemistry. He took up the flute, piano and cello, and then began composing at the age of nine. His first polka, “Hélène”, was dedicated to a girl he was in love with. At the same time, he set up a chemistry laboratory for his experiments, he even started making his own fireworks!

Passionate about science, Borodin studied at the St. Petersburg. State Medical Academy.  There he was elected professor of chemistry, which left him little time to devote himself to music. He considered himself a “Sunday musician,” and did not compose his 1st Symphony until encouraged by Balakirev. Although today he is remembered in the annals of Science, it is his hobby rather than his profession that he is truly famous for.

Borodin joined the group of composers led by Mily Balakirev called ‘The Mighty Handful’. The five members defended a “Russian” style of music. In 1880, he composed a very figurative symphonic poem, In the Steppes of Central Asia, that ingeniously intermingled Russian and Asian themes. On the death of fellow member Mussorgsky, Borodin was so affected that he composed For the Shores of your Far Homeland in homage of the fellow composer.

For almost eighteen years, Borodin worked on his opera, Prince Igor. Occasionally, he would present the work to the public as it was being written. Despite its success, the work remained incomplete following Borodin’s death. It was soon after completed by his friends, including Rimsky-Korsakov. A musical critic, Henry Hadow, once quipped: “No other composer can expect immortality with so few works”.  Here you can sample some of them.

The Major Works Borodin is Known for are:

Prince Igor

The opera Prince Igor is a powerful portrait of medieval Russia. Borodin, a part-time musician, spent eighteen years writing it, his only opera. It remained unfinished at his death. The composer Glazunov, a friend of Borodin, completed the work in memory of his friend. Rimsky-Korsakov arranged the orchestration and the score was born. The famous “Polovtsian Dances” have become emblematic of Russian music and are often performed outside the opera in orchestral concerts.

Discover the full opera Prince Igor

In the Steppes of Central Asia

This work is a symphonic poem composed for Tsar Alexander II in 1880. It highlights the region of the steppes, a province conquered by the tsar. Borodin includes different styles in his music, mainly Russian and Oriental. He dedicated the work to Franz Liszt, father of the symphonic poem.

Discover the different interpretations of this work

Symphony No. 1

Borodin met Mily Balakirev, pianist, composer and conductor for the first time in 1862. Under Balakirev’s tutelage, Borodin composed his first symphony. It was premiered in 1869, conducted by Balakirev. The influence of Schumann, Mendelssohn and Beethoven is felt, but in the slow movement Borodin’s particular fascination with Oriental music shines through.

Discover Borodin’s Second Symphony

Melodies, “Dlya beregov otchizni dal’noy,” “For the shore of your distant homeland”

Borodin admired the Russian poet Pushkin and transcribed his poem “For the shores of your distant homeland” for baritone and orchestra. A poignant work, it expresses the loss of a loved one. He composed it after the death of his friend and fellow composer Mussorgsky.

Discover Borodin’s melodies