The Russian composer Aleksandr Porfirevich Borodin (1833-1887) was also a medical doctor and research chemist. He embodied the group of composers known as the “Mighty Five” and used popular music to consciously pursue a “national style”.
Aleksandr Borodin was born in St. Petersburg. The name Borodin was that of a servant of Prince Gedeanov; the prince recognized the paternity and gave a name to the mother and child. Borodin was raised with many of the privileges of nobility, and his education was extensive in the tradition of the European gentleman. This included musical training and preparation for a profession: medicine.
When he was still a young medical intern, Borodin joined the Mighty Five, partly due to his ability with the keyboard— a determining factor for the 19th century Russian romantic composer. His training had been that of a talented amateur; now he has passed under the influence of the group’s team leader, Mili Balakirev, and later under the influence of the other members of the Mighty Five: Modesto Mussorgsky, César Cui and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Of them, Borodin alone remained faithful to his original and primary profession, even though he gave up actual medical practice (“unpleasant”) for research.
Although his works are relatively few, Borodin ranks second to Mussorgsky as a creative artist among the Mighty Five. His gift is marked neither by the uncertainty nor the verbosity of some of his colleagues and most of his musical heirs. Moreover, his confidence is not affected by the self-confidence that has led the next generation of Russian composers to utter relatively insignificant words.
Borodin’s Second Symphony (the Bogatyr or Heroic) and his opera Prince Igor (finished posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov) are his main works of great proportions. In both of them he effectively uses a developed popular style, and in the opera he makes an important contribution to the subgenre of “Russian music about the East”. Borodin’s happy gift for the seductive melody is attested by
with the adaptation of his music Prince Igor for the American musical Kismet. In addition to the symphony and opera, his most played works are, perhaps, the two string quartets, some of whose themes can also be heard in the Kismet. Some other chamber works and about 18 art songs almost complete the complete list of Borodin’s works.
Some elements of Borodin’s personal life and creative procedures remain obscure. A significant deposit of Borodiniana has been, since the composer’s death, in the hands of the Dianin family. Although the family has tried to introduce the composer to the world (the first Dianin was Borodin’s lab assistant), it is too involved and Soviet Puritanism is too strong to allow frankness about personal things; and the Dianin, none of whom is a professional musician, misjudge what is significant about the creative process. Sergei Dianin, a mathematician, in his biography of Borodin (1963) assumed that the composer had combined musical elements like a chemist combining chemicals.
Borodin did not teach. He died in 1887, and his legacy was preserved by his friends and reappeared in some works by Sergei Prokofiev. Borodin’s few works, like those of Mussorgsky, are disproportionately important.
More Readings on Aleksandr Profirevich Borodin
The basic biography of Borodin is Sergei Dianin, Borodin (trans. 1963). A previous work is Gerald E. H. H. Abraham, Borodin: The composer and his music (1927). Books with substantial sections on Borodin include the Studies of Abraham in Russian Music (1936); M. D. Calvocoressi and Gerald Abraham, Masters of Russian Music (1936); Donald Brook, Six Great Russian Composers (1946); Victor I. Seroff, The Mighty Five: The cradle of Russian national music (1948); and Mikhail O. Zetlin, The Mighty Five: The Evolution of the Russian Music School, edited by George Panin (1959).
Other biographical sources
Dianin, Sergei Aleksandrovich, Borodin, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Aleksandr Porfirevich Borodin: biography of a chemist, Berlin; New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988.
Habets, Alfred, Borodin and Liszt, New York: AMS Press, 1977.