“Respectable people do not write music or make love as a career.” – Alexander Borodin
Despite never fully devoting his attention to music, Borodin’s remarkable output as a life-long amateur composer is rightly held as some of the finest ever written in the history of Russian classical music. It’s quite amazing to think that such recognition could come to somebody that throughout his life was never more than a part-time musician that described himself as a “Sunday composer”. Borodin once wrote of music “For others it is their chief business, the occupation and aim of life. For me it is a relaxation, a pastime which distracts me from my principal business.” The rest of his time he devoted to chemistry, a field in which Borodin was highly respected, particularly known for his work on aldehydes (there’s even a chemical reaction discovered by him known in Russia as the “Borodin reaction”). A real Renaissance Man, Borodin was also a vocal advocate of women’s rights who founded the School of Medicine for Women in St Petersburg, as well as master of five languages (Russian, French, German, English and Italian) and four instruments (piano, flute, violin and cello). Borodin was a true gentleman to boot, always unassuming and modest despite his tireless dedication to philanthropy and countless good deeds, which deserve as much recognition and admiration as his music.
Born in St Petersburg in 1833, Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince. There being no prospect of marriage between his parents, he was registered instead as being the son of one of the prince’s serfs – a man who happened to be named Porfiry Borodin. Growing up in a privileged household, Borodin showed a precocious talent as a young musician, and began composing and attending concerts in his early teens. A desire to build his own fireworks prompted him to begin studying organic chemistry, an interest encouraged by his mother, who shared in the prevailing sentiment that a career in music was undignified. His interest in chemistry gradually overshadowed his musical inclinations, and Borodin enrolled in medical school at the age of 17. As a student, he never abandoned his love of music however – in fact, he formed his own string quartet, and would often play chamber music with friends when he needed a break from his studies. His love of chamber music would later give rise to one of the works he is best known for, his String Quartet No. 2, a timeless masterpiece of the genre and one of my personal favourites. For those of you that don’t have the time to listen to the whole thing, do at least listen to the first and third movements (ending at 7:56 and starting at 12:39 respectively) which are especially beautiful.
String Quartet No. 2, played by the Borodin Quartet
In 1858 Borodin graduated with a doctorate, having completed a thesis on acids. Sent by the Russian government to continue his scientific pursuits in Europe, he studied for a time with Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table. During this time he also met his future wife, a young pianist named Ekaterina Protopopova, whose fervent belief in women’s rights was the inspiration behind his work as a champion of gender equality. Borodin took this cause extremely seriously and devoted an extraordinary amount of time and effort towards it. Shostakovich, who was a great admirer of Borodin’s, later bemoaned how much time this detracted from Borodin’s musical endeavours, recalling in his memoirs: “Rimsky-Korsakov would visit Borodin and ask ‘Have you written anything?’ Borodin would reply ‘I have.’ And it would turn out to be another letter in defense of women’s rights.” Of all his many accomplishments, Borodin was most proud of his work in striving for gender equality: a plaque on his burial casket reads “To the Founder, Protector and Defender of the School of Medicine for Women.”
Nocturne from Petite Suite, played by Margaret Fingerhut. For this movement, Borodin supplied the description “Lulled by the happiness of being in love.”
Borodin was known to be an exceptionally warm and kind person, never able to turn his back on another soul in need. He had a habit of rescuing stray cats from around St Petersburg, which he would then care for in his apartment, and he was no less kind to his fellow man. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his autobiography that Borodin’s apartment “was often used as a shelter or a night’s lodging by various poor (or ‘visiting’) relations, who picked that place to fall ill or even lose their minds. Borodin had his hands full of them, doctored them, took them to hospitals… In the four rooms of his apartment there often slept several strange persons of this sort – sofas and floors were turned into beds.” Shostakovich provided a similar account in his memoirs: “Borodin’s apartment was a madhouse. I am not exaggerating, this is not a poetic simile, so popular in our times, as in ‘Our communal apartment is a madhouse.’ No, Borodin’s apartment was a madhouse without similes or metaphors. He always had a bunch of relatives living with him, or just poor people, or visitors who took sick and even – there were cases – went mad. Borodin fussed over them, treated them, took them to hospitals, and then visited them there.” So great was the reverence with which he treated his guests, that Borodin would often refrain from using his piano in the evenings for fear of disturbing them.
With Borodin’s attention being pulled in so many different directions, it’s a wonder that he had any time at all for music. He was even known to run to and from his lab to check on his experiments while composing. Unsurprisingly, Borodin wrote comparatively little music in his lifetime, though he was still a well respected composer in his day, and a member of the influential circle of Russian composers known as “The Mighty Five” (I’ll write about them at greater length in upcoming posts). What little music he did write however, is of the very highest quality. Rebecca Miller’s superb piece on Borodin for the My Hero Project (from which I collated much of the biographical information included in this post, you can read it here) points out that Borodin “wrote music in the same way that he conducted his experiments – with careful attention to details and patterns.” Here is some more of that meticulous and beautiful music for which Borodin will always be remembered:
Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor, played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel
In the Steppes of Central Asia, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy
Sonata in B Minor for Cello and Piano, 1st movement, played by Otto Kertesz and Ilona Prunyi