Alexander Borodin

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Alexander Borodin
Borodin.jpg
Born 12 November 1833
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Died 27 February 1887 (age 53)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
Occupation Composer and chemist

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin[1] (12 November 1833 – 27 February 1887)[2] was a Russian Romantic composer, doctor and chemist. He was a member of the group of composers called The Five (or "The Mighty Handful"), who were dedicated to producing a specifically Russian kind of art music.[3][4][5] He is best known for his symphonies, his two string quartets, In the Steppes of Central Asia and his opera Prince Igor. Music from Prince Igor and his string quartets was later adapted for the US musical Kismet.

He was a notable advocate of women's rights and a proponent of education in Russia and was a founder of the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg.

Life and profession[edit]

Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a Georgian noble, Luka Gedevanishvili, and a 24-year-old Russian woman, Evdokia Konstantinovna Antonova. The nobleman had him registered as the son of one of his serfs, Porfiry Borodin.[6] As a boy he received a good education, including piano lessons.[7] In 1850 he entered the Medical–Surgical Academy in St Petersburg, which was later home to Ivan Pavlov, and pursued a career in chemistry. On graduation he spent a year as surgeon in a military hospital, followed by three years of advanced scientific study in western Europe.

In 1862 Borodin returned to St Petersburg to take up a professorial chair in chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy[8] and spent the remainder of his scientific career in research, lecturing and overseeing the education of others. Eventually, he managed to establish medical courses for women (1872).

He began taking lessons in composition from Mily Balakirev in 1862. He married Ekaterina Protopopova, a pianist, in 1863, and had at least one daughter, named Gania.[9] Music remained a secondary vocation for Borodin outside his main career as a chemist and physician. He suffered poor health, having overcome cholera and several minor heart attacks. He died suddenly during a ball at the Academy, and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, in Saint Petersburg.

Career as a chemist[edit]

In his profession Borodin gained great respect, being particularly noted for his work on aldehydes.[10] Between 1859 and 1862 Borodin held a postdoctorate in Heidelberg. He worked in the laboratory of Emil Erlenmeyer working on benzene derivatives. He also spent time in Pisa, working on organic halogens. One experiment published in 1862 described the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride.[11] A related reaction known to the West as the Hunsdiecker reaction published in 1939 by the Hunsdieckers was promoted by the Soviet Union as the Borodin reaction. In 1862 he returned to the Medical–Surgical Academy, taking up a chair in chemistry, where he worked on self-condensation of small aldehydes. He published papers in 1864 and 1869, and in this field he found himself competing with August Kekulé.

Borodin is co-credited with the discovery of the Aldol reaction, with Charles-Adolphe Wurtz. In 1872 he announced to the Russian Chemical Society the discovery of a new by-product in aldehyde reactions with alcohol-like properties, and he noted similarities with compounds already discussed in publications by Wurtz from the same year.

He published his last full article in 1875 on reactions of amides and his last publication concerned a method for the identification of urea in animal urine.

His successor in the chemistry chair at Medical-Surgical academy was his son-in-law and fellow chemist, A. P. Dianin.

Musical avocation[edit]

Opera and orchestral works[edit]

Borodin met Mily Balakirev in 1862. While under Balakirev's tutelage in composition he began his Symphony No. 1 in E flat major; it was first performed in 1869, with Balakirev conducting. In that same year Borodin started on his Symphony No. 2 in B minor, which was not particularly successful at its premiere in 1877 under Eduard Nápravník, but with some minor re-orchestration received a successful performance in 1879 by the Free Music School under Rimsky-Korsakov's direction. In 1880 he composed the popular symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia. Two years later he began composing a third symphony, but left it unfinished at his death; two movements of it were later completed and orchestrated by Glazunov.

In 1868 Borodin became distracted from initial work on the second symphony by preoccupation with the opera Prince Igor, which is seen by some to be his most significant work and one of the most important historical Russian operas. It contains the Polovtsian Dances, often performed as a stand-alone concert work forming what is probably Borodin's best-known composition. Borodin left the opera (and a few other works) incomplete at his death. Prince Igor was completed posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. It is set in the 12th century, when the barbarous Polovtsians invaded southern Russia. The story tells of the capture of Prince Igor and son Vladimir of Russia by Polovtsian leader Khan Konchak, who entertains his prisoners lavishly and calls on his slaves to perform the famous Polovtsian dances, which provide a thrilling climax to the second act.

Chamber music[edit]

No other member of the Balakirev circle identified himself so openly with absolute music as did Borodin in his two string quartets, and in his many earlier chamber compositions. Himself a cellist, he was an enthusiastic chamber music player, an interest that deepened during his chemical studies in Heidelberg between 1859 and 1861. This early period yielded, among other chamber works, a string sextet and a piano quintet. In thematic structure and instrumental texture he based his pieces on those of Felix Mendelssohn.[12]

In 1875 Borodin started his First String Quartet, much to the displeasure of Mussorgsky and Vladimir Stasov. That Borodin did so in the company of The Five, who were hostile to chamber music, speaks to his independence. From the First Quartet on, he displayed mastery in the form. His Second Quartet, in which his strong lyricism is represented in the popular "Nocturne", followed in 1881. The First Quartet is richer in changes of mood. The Second Quartet has a more uniform atmosphere and expression.[12]

Musical legacy[edit]

The bust of Borodin at his tomb in Tikhvin Cemetery. The visible musical notation on the tile monument in the background shows themes from (1) "Gliding Dance of the Maidens" from Polovtsian Dances; (2) "Song of the Dark Forest"; and (3) the "Scherzo" theme from Symphony No. 3.
Full view of tomb of Alexander Borodin in Tikhvin Cemetery

Borodin's fame outside the Russian Empire was made possible during his lifetime by Franz Liszt, who arranged a performance of the Symphony No. 1 in Germany in 1880, and by the Comtesse de Mercy-Argenteau in Belgium and France. His music is noted for its strong lyricism and rich harmonies. Along with some influences from Western composers, as a member of The Five his music exudes also an undeniably Russian flavor. His passionate music and unusual harmonies proved to have a lasting influence on the younger French composers Debussy and Ravel (in homage, the latter composed in 1913 a piano piece entitled "À la manière de Borodine"). The strings instrumental at the end of the song Stand by Me by Ben E. King was influenced by Borodin.

The evocative characteristics of Borodin's music made possible the adaptation of his compositions in the 1953 musical Kismet, by Robert Wright and George Forrest, notably in the songs Stranger in Paradise and And This Is My Beloved. In 1954, Borodin was posthumously awarded a Tony Award for this show.

Borodin's music is full of romantic charm and enticing melody, and much of it also rings with the pageantry and landscape of old Russia; of onion-domed churches, richly decorated icons, and the vastness of the land. (Betty Fry)

Subsequent references[edit]

  • The Borodin Quartet was named in his honour.
  • The chemist Alexander Shulgin uses the name "Alexander Borodin" as a fictional persona in the books PiHKAL and TiHKAL.
  • In his book Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (1974) Charles Bukowski wrote a poem about the life of Borodin entitled "the life of borodin".

References[edit]

  1. ^ Russian: Алекса́ндр Порфи́рьевич Бороди́н, tr. Aleksandr Porfir'evič Borodin.
  2. ^ Old Style dates 31 October 1833 – 15 February 1887.
  3. ^ Abraham, Gerald. Borodin: the Composer and his Music. London, 1927
  4. ^ Dianin, Sergei Aleksandrovich. Borodin. London, New York, Oxford University Press, 1963
  5. ^ Oldani, Robert, William. "Borodin, Aleksandr Porfir′yevich," Grove Music Online (Accessed 27 January 2006, subscription required)
  6. ^ 8Notes website
  7. ^ By his teens Borodin could speak German, French, Italian and English, and could play the piano, flute and cello (Betty Fry, Tutor.com)
  8. ^ D. E. Lewis, Early Russian Organic Chemists and Their Legacy
  9. ^ Habets, Alfred (2005). Borodin and Liszt: I. Life and works of a Russian Composer. II. Liszt, as sketched in the letters of Borodin. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4212-5305-3. 
  10. ^ Michael D. Gordin (1996). "Facing the Music: How Original Was Borodin's Chemistry?" (PDF). Journal of Chemical Education 83 (4): 561–566. doi:10.1021/ed083p561. 
  11. ^ E. J. Behrman (2006). "Borodin?" (PDF). Journal of Chemical Education 83 (8): 1138. doi:10.1021/ed083p1138.1. 
  12. ^ a b Maes, 72

Further reading[edit]

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