Alexander Borodin: A Life

“I’m a composer in search of oblivion; I’m always slightly ashamed to admit I compose.” So said one of the most brilliant Russian scientists of his generation, for whom composing was only a hobby. Welcome to the extraordinary world of genius melodist Alexander Borodin.

The place is Baghdad. The year 1955. Howard Keel emerges stage right, legs akimbo, boldly intoning The Sands Of Time at the end of one of the best-sung musicals in Hollywood history: Kismet.

Under André Previn’s direction, MGM’s Studio Orchestra and co-stars Ann Blythe, Dolores Grey and Vic Damone held us spellbound with such unforgettable numbers as Strangers In Paradise, And This Is My Beloved and Night Of My Nights.

Everyone’s wondering who wrote all those haunting melodies – Kern, Porter, Rodgers? Not a bit of it. When Kismet first went into production, its unwitting composer had been dead nearly 70 years. His name? Alexander Borodin.

In a letter of 1877, the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky noted that “Borodin possesses talent, a very great talent, which, however, has come to nothing for want of instruction, and because blind fate has led him into the science laboratories.”

And there you have it in a nutshell. Borodin was indeed one of the most naturally gifted of all Russian composers, yet his principal vocation as a brilliant research chemist and lecturer meant that he spent too little time composing. Had things turned out differently, there’s no telling what he might have achieved, but at least he left us a handful of masterpieces that provide tantalising glimpses of an adorable musical personality.

Borodin had a decidedly unconventional start in life. He was born the illegitimate son of one Prince Luka Spanovich Gedianov, an elderly nobleman who had enjoyed the intimate company of a beautiful and intelligent 24-year-old by the name of Avdotya Konstantinova Antonova.

The unplanned result was a baby boy – Alexander Porforyevich – who, as was common practice at that time to save any public embarrassment, was entered in the registry under the name of one of the Prince’s serfs, Porfiry Borodin.

Alexander was brought up and tutored by his devoted mother and female friends and relations. In this warm, feminine atmosphere the sensitive, intellectual side of the boy’s nature flourished unhindered.

His teenage years were divided fairly equally between musical and scientific pursuits (he apparently loved to make fireworks), although it was the latter that eventually gained the upper hand. After enrolling at the Medico-Surgical Academy in 1850, Borodin devoted the next 10 years of his life to chemical research.

Yet music was always hovering in the background. Borodin had already struck up a lasting friendship with the young firebrand composer Modest Mussorgsky, and then in 1861 he met and fell in love with Ekaterina Protopopova, a brilliant 29-year-old piano virtuoso, who effectively turned his life around.

The immediate result was the sublime and unaccountably neglected Piano Quintet, the first of Borodin’s works to fully proclaim his genius. Yet the event that was to prove axiomatic in turning him from an inspired musical dilettante into a blazing creative talent was his initial contact in 1862 with one of the founding fathers of modern Russian music: Mily Balakirev.

It was Balakirev who would ultimately become the inspiration for the Kutchka or “Mighty Handful” – himself, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Cui, who famously dubbed them “The Five” in a French newspaper article. In the event Rimsky was the only one to develop into a full-blown professional.

As he so memorably put it: “Owing to deficiencies in technique, Balakirev writes little; Borodin, with difficulty; Cui, sloppily; Mussorgsky, messily and often nonsensically.”

Yet despite their differences – there were times when they were barely on speaking terms with one another – Borodin was the caring one who invariably supported the others.

This was particularly true in the case of Mussorgsky, whose life was one continual battle with alcoholism (Borodin last saw Mussorgsky the day before he died), and Balakirev, whose own struggles with alcohol were exacerbated by manic depression. (In 1873 Balakirev gave up music for five years to take a job at the Warsaw Railway, and then in 1887 retired into semi-seclusion as the result of a bout of religious mania.)

Yet during his more lucid periods Balakirev had a profound impact on musical life in St Petersburg, including helping to set up the St Petersburg Free School for Music in 1862, the same year he visited the Caucasus with the aim of studying and notating the region’s folk music.

This trip would not only inspire a widespread taste for the musically exotic in Russia, its most immediate effect was to light the touchpaper of Borodin’s composing genius.

Despite having next to no experience in handling large-scale forms, nor the slightest idea of how to orchestrate effectively, he set to work on a symphony that would turn out to be a cornerstone of the fast-emerging Nationalist school. It took him an astonishing five years to complete, but its heady combination of sensual melody and pulverising physicality proved well worth the wait.

The First Symphony was a remarkable achievement for a part-timer, especially as Borodin was also making great strides in his chosen profession. He had returned to the Medico-Surgical Academy as Professor from 1864, while lecturing widely and translating papers, books and journals into Russian. In 1872 he helped set up the first medical courses for women in Russia (a cause very close to his heart).

Aside from his scientific commitments, Borodin remained a devoted husband (barring one mild dalliance), and friend and supporter of colleagues. Life at home was a struggle, however, coping with Ekaterina’s ailing relatives, her continual battles with asthma and unusual sleeping habits (4am to 2pm), and their newly adopted seven-year-old daughter, Genya.

He later confided in a letter to his wife: “In trying to be a Glinka [composer], a Stupishin [civil servant], scientist, commissioner, artist, government official, philanthropist, father of other people’s children, doctor and invalid, I end up being the last in line.” It was the resulting strain that contributed to his premature death aged just 53.

Meanwhile, Borodin continued to compose whenever time allowed, including a series of 16 exquisite songs that sit at the pinnacle of the Russian tradition, and the delightful Petite Suite for piano, seven salonesque miniatures that encapsulate Borodin’s mature melodic style to perfection.

His next major work was the popular Second Symphony, which took an unbelievable seven years to complete. From the wild, frenetic outbursts of the opening movement to the skin-tingling sensuality of the Scherzo’s central trio section, this is Borodin in top gear.

Remarkably, with only a couple of major works behind him, word got out of Russia of his extraordinary talent, and no less a figure than Franz Liszt took the burgeoning composer under his wing, conducting his music whenever he had the opportunity.

Riding on the crest of a wave of popular recognition, Borodin penned his sublime symphonic picture, In The Steppes Of Central Asia, which takes his unique Oriental style to unprecedented levels of poetic sensitivity. He also managed to complete two masterly string quartets, the second of which has more non-stop inspired melodies than any other work in the genre, and was later to furnish several themes for Kismet.

But time was running out. For years Borodin had slaved away at his magnum opus, Prince Igor, an epic opera that includes the ever-popular Polovtsian Dances.

Sadly, he wouldn’t live to complete it. There was also talk of a Third Symphony (two movements remain thanks to Glazunov – he’d memorised them from Borodin’s playing them to him at the piano), but the composer’s energies were ebbing away with each passing day, as he was now having to care for his terminally ill wife.

On the evening of February 27th 1887 Borodin attended a party, during which he was apparently in the highest of spirits, dancing and joking. Then, just after midnight, he collapsed from a massive coronary.

It was all over in seconds. Just five months later, Ekaterina, bereft beyond consolation, also passed away. Borodin lies buried in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg alongside some of his greatest admirers and friends: Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.