Composer. He was a member of "The Five", a group of Russian composers who in the mid-1800s rejected foreign influences and dedicated themselves to creating music inspired by their nation's heritage. His style is notable for its rich lyricism, its exotic color and occasional barbarity, reflecting his interest in Eastern folk culture. The opera "Prince Igor" (premiered in 1890) is his magnum opus, with its "Polovetsian Dances" remaining as concert hall favorites. His String Quartet No. 2 (1881) features the famous "Nocturne". Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin was born in St. Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a Georgian noble who gave him a good education, including piano lessons. He pursued twin interests in science and music, teaching himself the cello so he could perform quartets with other amateurs, and his early attempts at composition were chamber works influenced by Mendelssohn and Schumann. From 1850 to 1856 he studied at the Medico-Surgical Academy in the Russian capital, qualifying as an M.D. and earning a doctorate in chemistry (1858); he came to find practicing medicine "distasteful" and in 1862 he returned to the Academy as a chemistry professor and researcher. He would hold these positions the rest of his life, gaining particular respect for his work on aldehydes. That same year he put himself under the tutelage of composer Mily Balakirev and joined Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Cesar Cui in forming the group that came to be known as "The Five". It was through Balakirev's influence that he turned to writing nationalist music. The premiere of Borodin's Symphony No. 1 (1869) made him a composer to watch. Franz Liszt promoted his music abroad and in gratitude Borodin dedicated his exquisite orchestral tone poem "In the Steppes of Central Asia" (1880) to him. His last years were marked by declining health and he died suddenly from heart failure while attending a costume ball in St. Petersburg. He was 53. Among "The Five", modern historians rank Borodin a close second to Mussorgsky on the talent scale. He was their most gifted melodist and had the firmest grasp of instrumental form. That was not how he saw himself, however. "I am a Sunday composer who wishes to remain obscure" he wrote. His vocation as chemist and teacher left little time for music, as did his activities on behalf of women's rights (he helped found the first medical school for women in Russia); he was also a mild, affable man, easily distracted from his works in progress by other demands. There are several anecdotes of his "Five" colleagues nagging him to be more diligent about composing, mostly to no avail. (Rimsky: "Did you transpose that piece?" Borodin: "Yes, from the piano to the desk"). This resulted in fewer than a dozen mature compositions, all of a very high standard, including the Symphony No. 2 (1877), considered one of the greatest in the Russian repertory; the String Quartet No. 1 (1879); and a handful of art songs. Borodin intermittently worked on the opera "Prince Igor" for 18 years, beginning in 1869, and left it unfinished at his death. It was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. Two movements of an unfinished Third Symphony were also edited into performable shape by Glazunov. He proved to be as influential outside of Russia's borders as within them, with Debussy and Ravel among those indebted, and his music was often mined for Hollywood film scores of the 1920s and 1930s. The enchantment of Borodin's tunes proved durable enough for a hit Broadway musical, "Kismet" (1953), to be adapted from them.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards