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Alexander Borodin: composer, scientist, physician
Photo: Alexander Borodin
Physician, chemist, scientist, composer Alexander Borodin had to be born during Renaissance times, somewhere in Florence, when the same versatile and gifted personalities lived. But God willed that he was born in St. Petersburg, on November 12, 1833.
Borodin was an illegitimate son of a 62-year-old Imeretian prince, Luka Stepanovich Gedianov, and the 25-year-old St. Petersburg bourgeois, Avdotya Antonova. In keeping with the common practice at the time, Borodin was registered as the lawful son of Prince Luka’s serf, Porfiry Borodin. Therefore, until the age of 8 the boy was officially his farther’s serf. Before his death Gedianov gave his son a free pass and bought a four-story house for him and his mother.
Background prevented him from attending the gymnasium, and Borodin was homeschooled in all the subjects covered by the gymnasium curriculum. He delved into the study of German and French, ultimately acquiring an outstanding education.
He already discovered his musical talent as a child, writing his first composition, the polka "Helen”, at the age of 9. The boy studied the flute and piano, and later the cello. At the same time he composed his first serious piece of music, a concerto for flute and piano.
At the tender age of 10, blossomed Borodin's fascination with chemistry, evolving from a mere hobby into the passion that would define his life's work. In 1850 Borodin commenced his studies at the Medical-Surgical Academy of St. Petersburg, immersing himself in a curriculum that encompassed botany, zoology, crystallography, anatomy, and chemistry. Six years later he was graduated with the highest honors in his class.
From 1859, Alexander Borodin improved his knowledge of chemistry abroad, initially in Heidelberg University. A year later, Borodin, along with Zinin and Mendeleev (if the former was his teacher, the latter was his friend), participated in the famous international congress of chemists in Karlsruhe.
At that time, the Medical-Surgical Academy provided precise definitions for the concepts of atom and molecule (referred to as "particle"). This marked the definitive triumph of the atomic-molecular theory of matter's structure. Furthermore, the academy embraced the acknowledged "new" atomic weights, a recognition influenced by the groundbreaking work of the exceptional French chemist Gerard and his students.
Even as he pursued his studies at the Medical and Surgical Academy, Borodin delved into the realms of creativity, composing romances, piano pieces, and chamber-instrumental ensembles.
His teacher Zinin, however, disapproved, saying that music posed a distraction from serious scientific pursuits. Consequently, during his internship abroad, Borodin, unwilling to abandon his musical passion, found himself concealing this facet of his life from his colleagues.
In the spring of 1861, Borodin returned to Heidelberg, where he met Ekaterina Protopopova, a remarkable pianist. According to her recollections, Borodin "hardly knew Schumann at that time, and Chopin only a little more."
New musical impressions awakened Borodin's interest in composition. Soon after, Ekaterina Sergeevna became his fiancée. In September, her health took a sharp decline, and the couple made a trip to Pisa.
In 1862, Borodin comes back to Russia, making friends with Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky. Under the mentorship of Balakirev, Borodin ventured into the realm of music while maintaining the jobs as a full-time chemist and physician. This collaboration led to the formation of The Five (The Mighty Handful), a group committed to creating national style of classical music that would distinctly reflect Russian identity. Under the influence of Balakirev, Stasov and other members of this association, the musical and aesthetic orientation of Borodin was determined as an adherent of the Russian national school of music and Michael Glinka’s follower.
From 1864 onward, Borodin held the position of an ordinary professor, later becoming the head of the chemical laboratory in 1874, and achieving the status of academician at the Medical and Surgical Academy in 1877. In 1883, he was recognized as an honorary member of the Society of Russian Physicians. Borodin together with his teacher Zinin co-founded the Russian Chemical Society in 1868.
Author of more than 40 works on chemistry, he discovered now-called Borodin-Hunsdiecker reaction. In 1862, Alexander Borodin became the first person in the world to synthesize an organofluorine compound, benzoyl fluoride. Borodin's studies extended to acetaldehyde, where he described aldol and the chemical reaction of aldol condensation.
Borodin's time management skills were impressive, considering his diverse roles as a chemist, physician, and later as a professor. Borodin was a promoter of education in Russia and founded the School of Medicine for Women in Saint Petersburg, where he taught until 1885.
Despite that his early musical training was limited, his passion for composition, nurtured by interactions with Balakirev, led him to explore various musical forms.
"Days, weeks, months, winters pass under conditions that didn’t allow me to engage into serious music-making. There is no time to think, to reorganize oneself musically, so the serious piece like opera is unthinkable.
I have only part of the summer at my disposal. Winter unlocks my musical muse only in the grip of illness, when I'm free of lectures and lab duties, yet remain capable of composing. Therefore, my musical comrades, contrary to common custom, do not wish me health, but illness," wrote Borodin. And humorously added: "Everything we don’t have we owe only to ourselves!"
As a result of the limited timeframe, he worked on Prince Igor, his main opera, for 18 years! But even those were not enough to complete it.
During the last year of his life, Borodin repeatedly complained of heartache. On the evening of February 15, 1887, during Maslenitsa (Shrovetide), he suddenly felt ill while visiting his friends. Efforts to assist him proved in vain.
Borodin passed away unexpectedly at the age of 53, succumbing to a heart rupture. A vast number of people attended his funeral. Many knew him not only as a musician and scholar but also as a genuinely kind person.
After his death, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov have completed and orchestrated his epical opera Prince Igor using materials left by the composer. In 1890, the opera was staged with big success by Mariinsky Theatre. It is renowned for its monumental imagery, the compelling folk choral scenes, and the vivid Russian scenes reminiscent of Ruslan and Lyudmila by M. Glinka. To this day, it stands as timeless masterpiece in the realm of Russian opera art.
Borodin is one of the pioneers of Russian classical symphony and quartet of XIX century. Borodin's First Symphony (1867), released alongside Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky's early symphonic works, spearheaded the heroic-epic trend in Russian symphonism. Bogatyrskaya (Heroic) Symphony, finished in 1876, stands as the pinnacle of global epic symphonism. First and Second quartets, are among his most exquisite chamber instrumental creations.
Beyond instrumental prowess, Borodin excelled as a chamber vocal lyricist, exemplified by the poignant elegy "For the Shores of a Faraway Fatherland," set to the verses of Alexander Pushkin. Pioneering the incorporation of Russian epic imagery into romance songs, he conveyed the liberating ideals of the 1860s, evident in works like "The Sleeping Princess" and "Song of the Dark Forest."
Borodin's artistic legacy delves deeply into the structures of Russian folk songs and Eastern musical traditions. His impact resonated not only in Russia but also abroad. Soviet musicians, including Sergei Prokofiev, Yuri Shaporin, Georgy Sviridov, Aram Khachaturian, and others, continued and expanded upon the rich traditions set by Borodin's musical innovations.