Borodin, Alexander Porphyrjevitch


An excellent Russian composer of the National School, born at St. Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a Prince of Imeretia. By profession he was a scientist, having studied at the Academy of Medicine in St. Petersburg, where after two years of service as an army surgeon and three years of study abroad, he became professor of chemistry. The same year, 1862, he met Balakirev, founder of the New School of Russian Music, who fanned into a blaze the spark of musical genius which had been smoldering in Borodin from boyhood. In 1863 he married Catherine Prptopopova, an amateur pianist of considerable talent. He played the flute, cello, and piano and wrote a flute and piano concerto at the age of thirteen which was followed soon after by a scherzo for piano and string sextet, and a trio for two violins and cello. But it was not until he joined the Nationalists, that he took up the study of harmony and composition in earnest, during his leisure hours. After five years' work his First Symphony, in E flat, was completed in 1867 and played at Wiesbaden in 1880, and his Second Symphony, in B minor, occupied his spare time from 1871 to 1877. In the latter year he traveled in Germany, visiting Liszt at Weimar, from whence, according to Grove, he sent letters to his wife, which form an interesting picture of the noted master. His prominence in science must have interfered greatly with his work as a composer, for, aside from his duties at the Medical Academy, he helped establish the School of Medicine for Women, in 1872, where he lectured until his sudden death, at a party at his home, in 1877. He also wrote a number of valuable treatises on chemistry, and was a knight and Councilor of State. Probably his most popular musical work, and the one by which he became known in this country is the symphonic sketch, In the Steppes of Central Asia, produced in 1880, a remarkable description of the great desert, representing the passing of a native caravan, attended by Russian soldiers. This gives him room for splendid coloring, in presenting the songs of the Russians and Asiatics and the silence of the monotonous steppes, and allows him to indulge, not only his national feeling, but his natural Oriental tendency. This sketch was intended for living tableaux to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reign of Alexander II. Borodin's other works include two string quartets, one in A major on a theme of Beethoven's, and one in B major; romances; a suite; and a Spanish Serenade, for piano; a number of songs of peculiar harmony, one Chez Ceuxla et Chez Nous with orchestra; a Third Symphony in A minor, finished by Glazounov; and the opera, Prince Igor, his finest work. It is a melodic opera, and unusually optomistic for a Russian play. The libretto, by Pushkin, is based on an old Russian epic describing Prince Igor's war against the Polovtsi. He left it unfinished but Rimsky-Korsakoff completed it, Glazounov supplying the third act, and the overture from memory, having Borodin's piano sketch of it. The opera was successfully produced at St. Petersburg in 1890, and at Kiev in 1891. He also started two other operas, one on Mei's the Betrothed of the Tsar, which was never finished, and Mlada, which Rimsky-Korsakoff completed and presented in 1892. With Rimsky-Korsakoff, Leadov, and Glazounov he wrote a quartet on the tones B-la-f, in honor of their publisher Belaieff, and Grove mentions his contribution of the Polka, Marche Funebre, and Requiem to the twentyfour variations and fourteen pieces for piano on the Chopsticks Waltz, called the Paraphrases, in which he was joined by Liszt as well as the other members of his own school.