Alexander Borodin
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Alexander Borodin

Alexander Borodin
Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin

12 November 1833
Died27 February 1887 (age 53)
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
OccupationComposer and chemist
Ekaterina Sergeyevna Borodin

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (Russian: ? , IPA: [?lk'sandr p?r'f?i r?j?vt? b?r?'d?in];[1] 12 November 1833 – 27 February 1887)[2] was a Russian Romantic composer of Georgian origin. He was one of the prominent 19th-century composers known as The Mighty Handful, a group dedicated to producing a uniquely Russian kind of classical music, rather than imitating earlier Western European models.[3][4][5] Borodin is best known for his symphonies, his two string quartets, the tone poem 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.

A doctor and chemist by profession, Borodin made important early contributions to the field of organic chemistry. Although today he is better known as a composer, during his lifetime, he regarded medicine and science as his primary occupations, only pursuing music and composition in his spare time or when he was ill.[6] As a chemist, Borodin is best known for his work in organic synthesis, including being among the first chemists to demonstrate nucleophilic substitution, as well as being the co-discoverer of the aldol reaction. A notable advocate of women's rights, Borodin was a promoter of education in Russia and founded the School of Medicine for Women in Saint Petersburg, where he taught until 1885.

Life and profession

Family and education

Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg as an illegitimate son of a 62-year-old Georgian nobleman, Luka Stepanovich Gedevanishvili, and a married 25-year-old Russian woman, Evdokia Konstantinovna Antonova. Due to the circumstances of Alexander's birth, the nobleman had him registered as the son of one of his Russian serfs, Porfiry Borodin, hence the composer's Russian last name. As a result of this registration, both Alexander and his nominal Russian father Porfiry were officially serfs of Alexander's biological father Luka. The Georgian father emancipated Alexander from serfdom when he was 7 and provided housing and money for him and his mother. In spite of this, Alexander was never publicly recognized by his mother, who stayed close but was referred to by young Borodin as his "aunt".[7][8]

Despite his status as a commoner, Borodin was well provided for by his Georgian father and grew up in a large four-storey house, which was gifted to Alexander and his "aunt" by the nobleman.[9] Although his registration prevented enrollment in a proper gymnasium, Borodin received good education in all of the subjects through private tutors at home. In 1850 he entered the Medical-Surgical Academy in Saint 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 Saint Petersburg to take up a professorial chair in chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy[10] and spent the remainder of his scientific career in research, lecturing and overseeing the education of others. Eventually, he established 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.[11] 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

In his profession Borodin gained great respect, being particularly noted for his work on aldehydes.[12] Between 1859 and 1862 Borodin held a postdoctoral position in Heidelberg. He worked in the laboratory of Emil Erlenmeyer working on benzene derivatives. He also spent time in Pisa, working on halocarbons. One experiment published in 1862 described the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride.[13] The radical halodecarboxylation of aliphatic carboxylic acids was first demonstrated by Borodin in 1861 in his synthesis of methyl bromide from silver acetate.[14][15] It was Cläre Hunsdiecker and her husband Heinz, however, who developed Borodin's work into a general method, for which they were granted a US patent in 1939,[16] and which they published in Chemische Berichte in 1942.[17] The method is generally known as either the Hunsdiecker reaction or the Hunsdiecker–Borodin reaction.[15]

In 1862, Borodin returned to the Medical-Surgical Academy (now known as the S.M. Kirov Military Medical Academy), and took up the chair in chemistry. He worked on self-condensation of small aldehydes in a process now known as the aldol reaction, the discovery of which is jointly credited to Borodin and Charles-Adolphe Wurtz.[18][19] Borodin investigated the condensation of valerian aldehyde and oenanth aldehyde, which was reported by von Richter in 1869.[20][21] In 1873, he described his work to the Russian Chemical Society[22] and noted similarities with compounds recently reported by Wurtz.[23][24][25]

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 the Medical-Surgical academy was his son-in-law and fellow chemist, Alexander Dianin.

Musical avocation

Opera and orchestral works

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 Alexander 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 Russians, led by Prince Igor of Seversk, set out to conquer the barbarous Polovtsians by travelling Eastward across the Steppes. The Polovtsians were apparently a Nomadic tribe originally of Turkish origin who habitually attacked southern Russia. A full solar eclipse early in the first act foreshadows an ominous outcome to the invasion. Prince Igor's troops are defeated. The story tells of the capture of Prince Igor, and his 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. The second half of the opera finds Prince Igor returning to his homeland, but rather than finding himself in disgrace, he is welcomed home by the townspeople and by his wife, Yaroslavna. Although for a while rarely performed in its entirety outside of Russia, this opera has received two notable new productions recently, one at the Bolshoi State Opera and Ballet Company in Russia in 2013, and one at the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York City in 2014.[26][27]

Chamber music

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.[28]

Full view of tomb of Alexander Borodin in Tikhvin Cemetery. The musical notation in the background shows themes from "Gliding Dance of the Maidens" from Polovtsian Dances; "Song of the Dark Forest"; and the "Scherzo" theme from Symphony No. 3.

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.[28]

Musical legacy

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 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)[This quote needs a citation]

Subsequent references

  • 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".


On November 12, 2018, Google recognized him with a doodle.[29]


  1. ^ English approximation of the surname: , (Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180).
  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. ^ Podlech, Joachim (2010-08-16). ""Try and Fall Sick ..."-The Composer, Chemist, and Surgeon Aleksandr Borodin". Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 49 (37): 6490-6495. doi:10.1002/anie.201002023. ISSN 1433-7851. PMID 20715236.
  7. ^ Lewis, David E. Early Russian Organic Chemists and Their Legacy. Springer Science & Business Media, 3 April 2012, p. 61
  8. ^ Cooper, David K. C. Doctors of Another Calling: Physicians Who Are Known Best in Fields Other than Medicine. Rowman & Littlefield, 26 November 2013, p. 163
  9. ^ Sergei Aleksandrovich Dianin, ?, ? . . -: 1960, p. 32
  10. ^ D. E. Lewis, Early Russian Organic Chemists and Their Legacy
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Gordin, M. D. (1996). "Facing the Music: How Original Was Borodin's Chemistry?". Journal of Chemical Education. 83 (4): 561-566. doi:10.1021/ed083p561.
  13. ^ Behrman, E. J. (2006). "Borodin". Journal of Chemical Education. 83 (8): 1138. doi:10.1021/ed083p1138.1.
  14. ^ Borodin, A. (1861). "Ueber Bromvaleriansäure und Brombuttersäure" [About bromovaleric acid and bromobutyric acid]. Annalen der Chemie und Pharmacie (in German). 119: 121-123. doi:10.1002/jlac.18611190113.
  15. ^ a b Li, J. J. (2014-01-30). "Hunsdiecker–Borodin Reaction". Name Reactions: A Collection of Detailed Mechanisms and Synthetic Applications (5th ed.). Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 327-328. ISBN 9783319039794.
  16. ^ US patent 2176181, Hunsdiecker, C.; E. Vogt & H. Hunsdiecker, "Method of manufacturing organic chlorine and bromine derivatives", published 1939-10-17, assigned to Hunsdiecker, C.; Vogt, E.; Hunsdiecker, H. 
  17. ^ Hunsdiecker, H.; Hunsdiecker, C. (1942). "Über den Abbau der Salze aliphatischer Säuren durch Brom" [About the degradation of salts of aliphatic acids by bromine]. Chemische Berichte (in German). 75 (3): 291-297. doi:10.1002/cber.19420750309.
  18. ^ Heathcock, C. H. (1991). "The Aldol Reaction: Acid and General Base Catalysis". In Trost, B. M.; Fleming, I. Comprehensive Organic Synthesis. 2. Elsevier Science. pp. 133-179. doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-052349-1.00027-5. ISBN 978-0-08-052349-1.
  19. ^ Mukaiyama, T. (1982). The Directed Aldol Reaction. Org. React. 28. pp. 203-331. doi:10.1002/0471264180.or028.03. ISBN 978-0471264187.
  20. ^ von Richter, V. (1869). "Aus St. Petersburg am 17. October 1869" [From St. Petersburg on 17 October 1869]. Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft (in German). 2: 552-554. doi:10.1002/cber.186900201222.
  21. ^ "Chemical notices from foreign sources: Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen Gesellschaft zu Berlin, no. 16, 1869". Chemical News. 20: 285-286. 1869.
  22. ^ Borodin, A (1873). "Ueber einen neuen Abkömmling des Valerals" [On a new derivative of valerian aldehyde]. Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft (in German). 6 (2): 982-985. doi:10.1002/cber.18730060232.
  23. ^ Wurtz, C.-A. (1872). "Sur un aldéhyde-alcool" [On an aldehyde alcohol]. Bulletin de la Société Chimique de Paris. 2nd series (in French). 17: 436-442.
  24. ^ Wurtz, C.-A. (1872). "Ueber einen Aldehyd-Alkohol" [About an aldehyde alcohol]. Journal für Praktische Chemie (in German). 5 (1): 457-464. doi:10.1002/prac.18720050148.
  25. ^ Wurtz, C.-A. (1872). "Sur un aldéhyde-alcool" [On an aldehyde alcohol]. Comptes rendus de l'Académie des sciences (in French). 74: 1361-1367.
  26. ^ New Penguin Opera Guide, Amanda Holden, 1993; Penguin Books Ltd.
  27. ^ Borodin: The Composer and his Music, Gerald Abraham
  28. ^ a b Maes, 72
  29. ^ "Alexander Borodin's 185th Birthday". Retrieved .

Further reading

External links

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