Alexander Borodin

FRIDAY, December 13, 2019

Aleksander Porfiryevich Borodin…

(Александр Порфирьевич Бородин)

I wish I could read Cyrillic, but unfortunately I read Japanese kana better and remain totally ignorant of the Russian alphabet. When we read Russian names they are translated phonetically into our alphabet, and that’s why you will find different spellings.

A chemist who never quit his day job…

Borodin was not only a chemist, he was a very good one.

He was illegitimate. His father was a Georgian nobleman, Luka Gedevanishvili. To avoid a scandal, Alexander was registered as the son of a servant, Porfiry Borodin, so that is the name we know today.

Alexander’s mother, a young Russian woman named Evdokia Antonova, made sure he got instruction in both music and science. Young Alexander even had a laboratory at home, where he made fireworks.

Franz Liszt conducted performances of Borodin’s compositions…

Liszt seems to be everywhere in the lives of other composers, mentoring them or advancing their music in other ways. His daughter married Wagner, and he conducted Wagner’s music. But he was never caught up in any of the “dirt”, never taking sides in disputes between different factions. For instance, Wagner, a thoroughly horrible human being, trashed Mendelssohn for being Jewish, but there was none of that hate from Liszt, who even did an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. Some of the people he championed are among the composers we hear most often today.

Supporter of women’s rights…

He set up the first medical courses for women in Russia in 1872 and was one of the first people in the world to open medical education to women.

Prince Igor, his most famous composition, was never finished…

He began his opera Prince Igor, nineteen years before his death in 1887, so it was a passion that took nearly 20 years of his life and that he was, unfortunately, unable to complete. His friends and admirers completed the opera.

Both his scientific research and musical compositions have stood the test of time. His discovery of the aldol reaction remains a key part of synthetic chemistry, and his music is  widely performed today.

Polovtsian Dances…

This is the most famous part of the opera and one of the most famous pieces ever written. In fact, it is the most famous and popular thing Borodin ever wrote.

Made into a famous Broadway musical…

Borodin received a posthumous Tony Award for the music of the musical Kismet, and in fact my family had the cast recording of that show. Most of the music was Borodin’s, and one song, Stranger in Paradise, remains a popular standard. It has been recorded by many singers, and here is a very recent recording.


3 thoughts on “Alexander Borodin

  1. I’m familiar with the song, Stranger in Paradise. I did not know that it came from the opera, Prince Igor.

    It was interesting to find out that Borodin was a chemist, and supported women’s rights over 100 years ago.

  2. I’ve discovered after this a magnificent Requiem conducted by Stokowski. An interesting comment there on family life I found was “The daughter would play “Chopsticks” in polka rhythm while the adults improvised against it.” The Requiem I’m listening to starts with chopsticks in violin tremolo before becoming dark and magnificent. I think I’ll be listening to a lot of Borodin.
    The fact that he was also a scientist is surprising. But might science and music have some kind of link somewhere: creativity, discipline, and imagination for the real scientists?

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