Alexander Borodin was a dilettante in anything but the pejorative sense. Physician, scientist, composer, educator, feminist, linguist ~ he accomplished more in his 53 years than most celebrated figures. To find someone after him who approached the breadth of his diverse achievements, one would have to look to the French novelist and statesman André Malraux or, in more recent times, the British neurologist turned opera director Jonathan Miller.
Borodin was born in St. Petersburg in 1833 during the reign of Nikolai I. He was the illegitimate son of Georgian Prince Ghedeanov and the wife of an army doctor and evidently had the advantages of both nature and nurture. According to custom, the boy's birth was registered in the name of Ghedeanov's serf, Porfiry Borodin; hence, the composer we know today as Alexander Porfirievich Borodin. His mother lavished him with an expensive private education, and he thrived in science, languages and music. He learned to play the piano, flute, violin and cello and early on, tried his hand at composing. At age 10, he wrote a polka for two pianos, Hélène, and at 14, a concerto for flute and piano and a string trio on themes from Meyerbeer's 1831 opera Robert le diable. Proficiency in languages led him to add German, French, English and Italian to his repertoire.
Possibly under the influence of his stepfather, he developed an interest in studying medicine and entered the Academy of Medicine and Surgery in St. Petersburg in 1850, graduating with honors in 1855. While there, his love of the sciences deepened and he took his doctorate in chemistry in 1858, then travelled to Europe to do post-doc work. For three years, he studied in Heidelberg and elsewhere, attending lectures by luminaries like German physicists Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchoff (co-discoverers of rubidium and caesium). It was in Heidelberg that Borodin met Ekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova, an accomplished pianist who introduced him to the music of Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. They spent time together in Italy, but Borodin returned to St. Petersburg in 1862 to accept an assistant professorship at the Academy. He and Protopopovna were married the following year and remained lifelong companions; after his death in 1887, she survived him by only five more months.
Though it was a peripheral outpost of culture and academe relative to the European centers, St. Petersburg was an exciting place for a scientist or musician in the 1860s. While Borodin pursued his studies of catalysts, precipitates and "the analogy of arsenical with phosphoric acid," another young chemist just one year Borodin's junior was laying the foundations of modern physical chemistry. Dmitri Mendeleev, a chemistry professor at the University of St. Petersburg, discovered his groundbreaking periodic law, which stated that "the chemical properties of elements are periodic functions of their atomic weights." He published his law and his famous table in 1869 and predicted with stunning accuracy the properties of the missing elements. Within 20 years, three of these were discovered and given the nationalistic names of gallium, scandium and germanium. Their properties were virtually identical to Mendeleev's forecast. By odd coincidence, one of Mendeleev's professional colleagues was an engineer named Dmitri Boleslavovich Shostakovich, whose son Dmitri Dmitrievich would eventually rise to become one of the musical giants of the Soviet era.
In 1862 ~ the year that Ivan Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons and introduced "nihilism" into the vernacular ~ Borodin's life took a decisive turn when he met the composer Mili Balakirev, who persuaded him to continue his musical studies in his very spare leisure time. Borodin kept up his scientific research and publish-or-perish grind, putting out several papers with the Russian Academy of Sciences. But under Balakirev's guidance, he began working on his first symphony and stayed at it off and on for five years; its first performance, under Balakirev's direction, took place the same year that Mendeleev published his magnum opus, the year that Tolstoy completed War and Peace and the year that a 29-year-old Tchaikovsky began his abortive work on the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet. The symphony was a respectable work, not well received, but soon thereafter the critic Vladimir Stasov suggested that Borodin entertain the notion of writing an opera on the subject of Prince Igor. It was Stasov, in an article published in 1867, who coined the phrase Moguchaya Kuchka, which has been variously translated as the "Mighty Little Company," "Mighty Heap," "Mighty Handful," "Mighty Five" and "Russian Five." He didn't call them out by name, but Rimsky-Korsakoff, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Balakirev came to be the principals associated with Stasov's grand design for a Russian nationalist music.
The 1860s and 1870s were a time of unprecedented liberalism in Russia. When Alexander II assumed the czar's throne in 1855 from his father Nikolai I, he inherited a medieval economy, a socially backward government, a restive populace and the Crimean War. Though basically a conservative, Alexander recognized that Russia was in desperate need of reform following the reluctant autocracy of his Enlightenment Age uncle Alexander I (1801-1825) and the repressive rule of Nikolai (1825-1855). To end the war, Alexander made a quick peace in 1856 with his British, French, Sardinian and Turkish adversaries in the Crimea. Russia paid its penalty, restoring Kars to the Ottomans, offering guarantee of self-rule to Moldavia and Wallachia (the future Rumania), opening the Black Sea and the Danube to the merchant marine of all nations. Now freed to pursue necessary reforms at home, he followed the lead of the northern European nations following the 1815 Congress of Vienna (which had outlawed slavery) and liberated the serfs in 1861 despite the opposition of the landed nobility. It is worth noting that slavery was ended by British India in 1862, by the United States in 1863 and 1865, by Spain in 1867, by Portugal in 1869, by Spanish Puerto Rico in 1873, by Cuba in 1886 and by Brazil in 1888.
Continuing his reforms, Alexander reorganized the judicial and administrative branches of government. He created a system of local elective assemblies or zemstvo and Westernized the courts (1864). He overhauled municipal governments in a similar manner (1870). He reorganized the army and instituted universal military training (1874). He limited the power of the secret police and expanded freedom of the press and academia. It was a massive experiment with liberalism and social engineering and had it succeeded, there might have been no rebellions in 1905 or 1917. But the czar's policies met with displeasure from nobles who thought they were too ambitious and from the narodniki or social reformers who thought they were too cautious. In 1881, like Lincoln before him, Alexander was assassinated by a radical bomber of the nihilist sect The People's Will, and his reactionary son Alexander III virtually undid all the reforms and turned back the clock to the repressive era of his grandfather, Nikolai. The new czar unwittingly laid the ground work for the coming socialist revolution.
The reform movement was spurred on in part by the literary activism of Turgenev. His early stories depicted idealistic young heroes who believed in social justice but whose passivity and inertia nonetheless rendered them inutile. Borodin, a friend of Turgenev's and a passionate liberal himself, was no such sloth. Swept up in the social and political upheaval around him, Borodin next embarked on a career and cause that consumed the remainder of his life. In order to promote the training of women as physicians, he left the Medical Academy in 1872 and founded the School of Medicine for Women, where he lectured until his death. A committed feminist, he worked tirelessly for the education of women a century before equal rights became truly fashionable in the West and spent more and more of his time on women's issues and related philanthropic causes. A gregarious man, he was a ready mentor to his students and always made himself available to offer aid. He frequently attended town meetings on women's rights. His apartment was always full of guests ~ some relatives, some friends, some probably indigents.
Hardly a wonder, then, that Borodin had so little time for music. And yet he somehow managed to write between 50 and 60 musical works in all. Many of them were trivial piano pieces, songs and small chamber works. On a visit to Weimar in 1877, he wrote a paraphrase on the theme of Chopsticks that Liszt enjoyed, and it was Liszt's support that created opportunities for Borodin's major works to be heard outside of Russia. In the final analysis, Borodin managed to write three respectable symphonies (one unfinished and another that has entered the standard repertoire), a pair of much admired string quartets, a popular tone picture of the Asian steppes and one of the great Russian national operas, Prince Igor, which was left unfinished at his death. It was left to Rimsky-Korsakoff, Liadov and Glazunov to complete it, and they generously contributed many of their own original ideas, but the work remains essentially Borodin's. He may well have been the most imaginative Russian melodist next to Tchaikovsky, given the endurance of his tunes. He was possibly helped along by the Broadway musical team of Robert Wright and George Forrest, who expropriated Borodin's best-loved melodies for their 1953 Kismet (and who were also responsible for the notoriously awful 1944 Song of Norway based on Grieg's music). But today, there are few people have ever seen or heard Kismet, yet Borodin's works remain as sturdy as ever.
On February 27, 1887 ~ the last day of Russian carnaval ~ Borodin invited some friends for a soirée at his home.
He entertained them with his usual hospitality and life-of-the-party enthusiasm, getting into the spirit with
dancing and singing. He played fragments of his new Third Symphony for his guests on the piano. While conversing
with friends, Borodin ~ who had contracted cholera two years earlier ~ collapsed and died. Just the day before,
his son-in-law A.P. Dianin had heard him in the apartment playing some new music intended for the symphony.
"Well, Sashenka," Borodin said, "I know that some things I have written are not bad. But this finale!
What a finale!" He never had the chance to write down a note of it.
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