ALEXANDER BORODIN (1833-1887) Born on October 31, 1833 in St. Petersburg, Borodin was the illegitimate son of a Georgian nobleman, Prince Luka Stepanovich Gedianishvili. As was common practice at the time, the child was registered as the lawful son of one of his father's serfs, Porfiry Borodin. Borodin was raised in the aristocratic home of his mother, Avdot'ya Konstantinovna Antonova, who took charge of his education. By the time he was 13, he was fluent in German (taught to him by his mother's housekeeper), French (taught to him by his governess), and English (taught to him by an English gentleman named John Roper). Later, he became fluent in Italian and was able to write scientific treatises in that language.
As a child he studied the flute, cello, and piano, playing the German classics in piano duet arrangements and second cello parts in Boccherini quintets. He experimented with musical composition in his early teens.
Borodin's mother married a retired army doctor, who encouraged the boy's interest in medicine. In the years 1859 - 1862, he studied first medicine, and then chemistry, in Heidelberg. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1862, and from 1864 until his death in 1887, he was professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy. In 1872, he helped develop, implement, and administer a program of medical studies for women.
Soon after his return to St. Petersburg, he was introduced to Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), who brought him into the inner circle of the Moguchay Kuchka (the Mighty Handful), a group devoted to developing a truly national musical movement based on the style of Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) and, to a lesser degree, the musical innovations of Alexander Sergevich Dargomyzhky (1813-69). Initiated by Vladimir Stasov, a music critic and historian, members of the group included Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui (1835-1918), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81), and Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). They met in the evenings at various homes to discuss and play the music of 19th Century composers, from Auber to Listz to Verdi to Wagner. Balakirev was the only professionally trained musician in the group, and as the others became more proficient, they would play their works-in-progress for the group to critique.
Borodin's primary interest remained in chemistry, and he had less time for music as he became more involved with research projects. It was not unusual for him to interrupt his composing or musical gatherings to check on a chemistry experiment in another room. His musical colleagues often wished him ill health because they knew that he could only find the time to compose when he was ill and confined to bed.
Early in 1869, Vladimir Stasov presented Borodin with a scenario for an opera based on the 12th Century Russian epic poem, Slovo o polku Igoreve (The Lay of the Host of Igor). Immediately, Borodin wrote the libretto for an opera, Knaz' Igor (Prince Igor), and worked on the musical composition sporadically for the next 18 years. When he died in 1887, he left a miscellaneous group of ten numbers fully orchestrated, and only 6,890 bars of music on paper. Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) completed the opera based on these sketches and completed portions, drawing on portions of the opera Borodin has played at some of their musical evenings. Glazunov was able to put down the overture from memory, having heard Borodin play the piece so often that he had been able to memorize it.
In June of 1885, Borodin contracted cholera which led to heart complications, from which he died on February 15, 1887. His completed works are Symphony No. 1 in E flat ((1867); Symphony No. 2 in B minor (1876); the String Quartet No. 1 in A (1879); the symphonic tone poem, In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880); and the String Quartet No. 2 in D minor (1881). His incomplete projects, in addition to Knaz' Igor (Prince Igor), include an 1867 opera-farce in the style of Offenbach entitled Bogatïri (The Heroic Warriors): Borodin composed one-quarter of the music, and the rest he based on excerpts from operas by Rossini, Meyerbeer, Offenbach, Serov, Verdi, Hérold, and others. The work lampooned the pretentiousness of realism in theater that was permeating the composers of the late 1860s.