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Aleksandr Profirevich Borodin

Aleksandr Profirevich Borodin

The Russian composer Aleksandr Porfirevich Borodin (1833-1887) was also a physician and research chemist. He epitomized the group of composers known as the "Mighty Five" and used folk music in conscious pursuit of a "national style."

Aleksandr Borodin was born in St. Petersburg. The name Borodin was that of a retainer to Prince Gedeanov; the prince acknowledged paternity and provided the mother and the boy with a name. Borodin was raised with many of the privileges of the nobility, and his education was broad in the tradition of the European gentleman. This included musical training and preparation for a profession: medicine.

While still a young medical intern, Borodin gained entry to the Mighty Five, partly on the strength of his keyboard ability—a defining factor of the 19th-century romantic Russian composer. His training had been that of the gifted dilettante; he now came under the influence of the taskmaster of the group, Mili Balakirev, and subsequently under the influence of the other members of the Mighty Five: Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Of them, Borodin alone stuck by his original and primary profession, although he gave up actual medical practice ("distasteful") for research.

Although his works are relatively few, Borodin ranks a close 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 marred by the self-righteous certainty that led the next generation of Russian composers into relatively insignificant utterance.

Borodin's Second Symphony (the Bogatyr or Heroic) and his opera Prince Igor (finished posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Aleksandr Glazunov) are his principal works of large proportions. In both he uses a developed folk style effectively, and in the opera he makes a major contribution to the subgenre of "Russian music about the East." Borodin's happy gift for beguiling melody is attested to by the adaptation of his Prince Igor music for the American musical Kismet. Other than the symphony and the opera, his most-played works are, perhaps, the two String Quartets, some of whose themes are also heard in Kismet. A few other chamber works and some 18 art songs nearly round out Borodin's complete list of works.

Some elements of Borodin's personal life and his creative procedures remain obscure. A significant store of Borodiniana has been, since the composer's death, in the hands of the Dianin family. Although the family has tried to present the composer to the world (the first Dianin was Borodin's laboratory assistant), they are too closely involved and Soviet puritanism is far too strong to allow for frankness about personal things; and the Dianins, none of them professional musicians, misjudge what is significant about the creative procedure. Sergei Dianin, a mathematician, in his Borodin biography (1963) supposed the composer to have combined musical elements as a chemist combines chemicals.

Borodin did not teach. He died in 1887, and his legacy was preserved by his friends and reappears in some of the work of Sergei Prokofiev. Borodin's few works, like those of Mussorgsky, are disproportionately important.

Further Reading

The basic biography of Borodin is Sergei Dianin, Borodin (trans. 1963). An earlier work is Gerald E. H. Abraham, Borodin: The Composer and His Music (1927). Books with substantial sections on Borodin include Abraham's Studies 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 Five: The Evolution of the Russian School of Music, edited and translated by George Panin (1959).

Additional Sources

Dianin, Sergei Aleksandrovich, Borodin, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Aleksandr Porfirevich Borodin: a chemist's biography, Berlin; New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988.

Habets, Alfred, Borodin and Liszt, New York: AMS Press, 1977. □

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