Alexander Borodin

by Rebecca Miller

Alexander Borodin - Chemist and Composer
St. Petersburg on the Neva River - Borodin's home for most of his life
St. Petersburg on the Neva River - Borodin's home for most of his life

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1833. He was the illegitimate son of Luke Gedeoneshvilli, an elderly prince from Georgia whose family was descended from one of the last kings of Imeritera in the Caucasus. Prince Luke had fallen in love with Alexander’s mother, Narva, who was a serving maid then twenty-four. Since there was no option available for marriage to the prince, Alexander's mother later married a retired army doctor. As was common in those days in Russia, for a child born out of wedlock, Alexander would be given the last name of a servant or serf belonging to the prince. The chosen serf's name was Porfiry Borodin.

Alexander grew up in a privileged household. He was a bright child, eager to learn and gifted in music. His mother doted over him (although she insisted he call her "Aunt Mimi"). She arranged for him to be taught at home and Alexander was quick to learn French, German and Italian. He studied the flute and violoncello with his tutors and taught himself to play the violin. He became an enthusiastic concertgoer at the age twelve. Excited by the music he heard, he eagerly composed a concerto for the piano at the age of thirteen and then a trio for two violins and a cello.

Borodin also loved organic chemistry and this interest was encouraged by his mother's husband, the army doctor. Borodin often experimented in making fireworks and chemical electricity (galvanization). His mother, approving of his interest in science and believing music to be an undignified profession (a common attitude in Russia during this time), she firmly enrolled him at the St. Petersburg School of Medicine.

However, as a medical student, Borodin did not give up on his beloved music; he formed his own string quartet! Whenever time allowed, he would walk several miles, his cello under his arm, to join his musician friends for an all-night session of music. This balancing of his two loves would set a pattern for how Borodin would live the rest of his life. Borodin did well at the university. He was highly praised for his work, although his science professor would sometimes complain that he spent too much time on music.

Borodin with Dmitri Mendeleev and other students
Borodin with Dmitri Mendeleev and other students

In 1858, he graduated as a Doctor of Medicine, after completing a thesis on acids. Notably, his was the first dissertation in the history of the Academy to be written and defended, not in Latin, but in Russian. The Imperial government sent him and group of other students to Europe for four years to study the latest scientific developments where Borodin was fortunate in being able to study under the great Russian scientist,
Dmitri Mendeleev (originator of the periodic table of chemicals).

While studying in Heidelberg, Germany, Borodin met the love of his life. Ekaterina Protopova was an accomplished Russian pianist, who had come to Germany for treatment of her tuberculosis. The two would frequently go to concerts together and they became fast friends as they shared their passion for music. Ekaterina introduced him to the music of Schumann and Chopin. She was also a fervent proponent of women’s rights. Borodin was so inspired and impressed by her that he became involved in this crusade as well. And Borodin did not just talk about it – he later did something about it! Due to Ekaterina's illness, the two lived in Italy for four years. Borodin took advantage of the mild climate to conduct some chemical experiments that were difficult to do in the frozen north. In 1863, they returned to St. Petersburg and married.

Ekaterina Protopova Borodina
Ekaterina Protopova Borodina

At the age of thirty-one, Borodin became a full-time professor of organic chemistry at the Academy of Medicine. A large apartment was also included with this position and it was here that Borodin and his wife would spend rewarding and productive years. He devoted himself to his research, his students and his music. Now that he had a respected position, he followed through on his vow to further the advancement of women. Certain that women would make excellent doctors, Borodin became one of the founders of the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg. To this day, women make up an unusually high proportion of the doctors in Russia. Another accomplishment was a chemical discovery he made, which was named after him, called the Borodin reaction.

Borodin was a handsome man, six feet tall, dark-eyed, and with a warm smile. He was much liked by all who knew him. As a teacher, he was beloved by his students who said he had a “brilliant and fascinating personality.” He, in turn, was passionately concerned for their welfare, always going out of his way to help them. His classroom was a joy for he was cheerful, witty and always ready to talk about music or hum a tune as he conducted his experiments. It was said that he could write music no matter where he was. Often, he would jot down a catchy bit of music between classroom lectures. After work, he would continue with his experiments in a laboratory next to his apartment. His visiting musical friends would tell of the many times that Borodin would become fervently involved in music or conversation, then suddenly jump up and dash out of the room to see whether one of his experiments had boiled over.

"The Mighty Five" (l to r):  a  singer,  Moussorgsky, Korsakov, (Stasov), Balakirev,Cui,andBorodin
"The Mighty Five" (l to r): a singer, Moussorgsky, Korsakov, (Stasov), Balakirev,Cui,andBorodin

Incredibly, although Borodin was primarily a professor of chemistry, he had also managed to earn respect and admiration for his music. And this was from some of the leading composers of his day! He became a valued member of the “Mighty Handful,” also called the “Russian Five.” This group, which included Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Cui, was the most influential group of composers in all of Russia. They had one passion in common: to incorporate the beautiful folk music of their country into the classical music of the European tradition. Not for them, an insipid copy of Italian opera – or a second-best rendering of a German symphony! No, the Russian Five was inspired to make an entirely new, vibrant sound. Russian classical music found its national soul through this integrative tradition and it showed the way for many of Russia’s most pre-eminent composers to follow – composers such as Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and so many more.

As for Borodin, he wrote music in the same way that he conducted his experiments - with careful attention to details and patterns. The mood of his music, though, was optimistic and it evoked strong Russian themes of nature and beauty. He was intuitive also. Perhaps his intuitive understanding and caring for those around him made him intuitive in his music. When he composed the Polovtsian Dances for his opera, Prince Igor, no one knew what the musical style of those Asian nomads was (since they were extinct by the 19th century). However, a century later, scientists studied the music of an ethnic branch of these peoples and Borodin was proved to be right! Some wonder if it's possible that his own Caucasian heritage, through Prince Luke Gedeoneshvilli, had something to do with it.

With all of his gifts, Borodin’s only handicap was in how little time he could devote to his music. His health was not the best, but he never failed to take advantage of the free time his illnesses gave him to compose. His friends would sometimes joke that they wished he would become ill more often, so that he could stay home and concentrate on his music.

How did Alexander Borodin manage all this? Borodin called himself a “Sunday composer.” Any extra time he had, he would devote to his music. But how little time there was! Science and music were not the only things to keep him busy. Because he was a professor, he was frequently asked to assist many charities and he seldom refused. His kind heart could never say no to those in need. This included stray cats as well as relatives… Rimsky-Korsakov wrote in his memoirs that the 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."

Borodin even worried that his piano playing might wake his guests and he would often give up his plans for composing on those nights.


Alexander Borodin, later years<br>( Music/Classic/Borodin.jpg)
Alexander Borodin, later years
( Music/Classic/Borodin.jpg)

The young composer, Shostakovich, who greatly admired Borodin's music, once said bitterly that Borodin should have had a monument raised to him for all the time he spent on the feminist cause. "He would get one of those monuments too, because he plunged headlong into women's education and spent more and more time as he grew older on philanthropy, primarily for women's causes, and these butchered him as a composer..."

Yet, in spite of all this, Borodin made an enormous impact on the music of his day - and on all of modern music to come.

"He wrote music of great originality and beauty -- bold orchestral tone poems on exotic lands and subjects, as well as Russian nationalist works influenced by folk melodies and featuring astonishing harmonic and rhythmic innovation (chords in fourths, harmonies with nonharmonic "added tones," quasi-jazz syncopation)." ~ Blue Gene Tyranny, All Music Guide

Borodin's music did not captivate just Russian composers; the French composers Ravel and Debussy, admired him as well. The quality of his music more than made up for its lack of quantity. And all of this from a busy chemist, teacher/mentor, activist and philanthropist! Just imagine what he might have done if he had had more time!

On the night of February 15, 1887, Borodin was taking part in a fancy dress ball at his home for the professors of the Academy. Dressed in a traditional Russian costume of red shirt and high boots, Borodin was engaged in vigorous dancing when he suddenly collapsed and died from a burst artery to his heart. Although he was only fifty-four, the doctors found from his autopsy that the artery had been so fragile that it was astonishing that he had lived as long as he did. Ekaterina, who had been in ill health for some time, was unable to attend the funeral and she died only a few months later.

Alexander Borodin is my hero. I cannot think of a more stellar example of someone who knew what it meant to live fully and yet still give so much to others than Alexander Borodin. He was productive and loving by nature; he was passionate and perseverant about his work in science and in music, while always remaining true to himself. He was kind-hearted and cared deeply for his fellow human beings, to the extent of putting them first without a thought for himself. He was humble in everything, yet joyful and full of fun. He was devoted to his wife, his friends, his students, and anyone else who came under his notice and care. He worked tirelessly for women in Russia to have the right to a career in medicine – and he succeeded by founding the famous Russian Courses of Medicine for Women, enabling their breakthrough into the profession of medicine.

And, on top of all that, he composed some of the loveliest, most memorable music of all time.

Related Links

"In the Steppes of Central Asia" - composer, Alexander Borodin - music conducted by Kurt Sanderling
String Quartet No. 2, Nocturn by Borodon
Polovetsian Dances from the opera, Prince Igor. by Alexander Borodin - Bolshoi Ballet, 1951
Illustrated history of St. Petersburg - Where Borodin lived most of his life. Click on the years (1800-1855) and (1840-1895) to get an idea of Borodin's era.
Borodin's music - Descriptive essay on the shaping of Borodin’s music

Extra Info

Orchestral Works
• Symphony No. 1 in E-flat
• Symphony No. 2 in b minor
• Symphony No. 3 (unfinished)
• Symphonic Sketch "In the Steppes of Central Asia" 1880 – Borodin called this a “musical picture.”

Chamber Music
• String Quartet in A
• String Quartet in D (dedicated to Ekaterina)


The Heroic Warriors [Bogatyry]
The Tsar's Bride [Tsarskaya nevesta]
Mlada: Act 4 only,
Prince Igor [Knyaz' Igor] The melodies from this opera are familiar to many even today. They were incorporated into the musical Kismet, for which Borodin was posthumously awarded a Tony Award in 1954! The song “Stranger in Paradise” is the best known since it was a hit song sung by Tony Bennett.

• Spyashchaya knyazhna (the Sleeping princess)
• Morskaya tsarevna (The sea princess)
• Psenya tyomnovo lesa (Song of the dark forest)
• More (The sea)
• Dlya beregov otchizni dal'noy (For the shores of thy far native land)

This story was made possible by a grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Author Info

"As a composer seeking to remain anonymous, I am shy of confessing my musical activity... 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, my professorship. I love my profession and my science. I love the Academy and my pupils, male and female, because to direct the work of young people, one must be close to them."
- Alexander Borodin

Contrary to what Borodin wrote long ago, he never could choose between his two loves - science and music. For most of his life, he dashed from the laboratory to the piano and back again. Also, another just as vital part of his busy life was his devotion to the care of his fellow human beings.