Few people get two bites at the cherry but Borodin is a rare example. No other great composer has achieved that sobriquet while achieving equal eminence in another, entirely different field of work. For a full-time professional scientist to compose works of such originality and beauty as the Polovtsian Dances (from Prince Igor) and the String Quartet No 2 is a minor miracle. Borodin’s first published work was not a song or a sonata but a paper, ‘On the Action of Ethyl Iodide on Hydrobenzamide and Amarine’. His first tour of Europe was not as a concert pianist but for scientific study.
His origins were as exceptional: he was the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, Ghedeanov, and the wife of an army doctor. As was the custom of the time, he was registered as the lawful child of one of Ghedeanov’s serfs, one Porfiry Borodin. He learnt to speak several foreign languages and was taught to play the flute, but it was his love and natural bent for science and, in particular, chemistry that dominated his professional life. He graduated with honours from the Academy of Medicine in St Petersburg in 1856 and by the mid-1860s was a professor in the Academy of Physicians. No wonder that so much of Borodin’s music was abandoned or left incomplete at his death – his public duties as an eminent scientist and research chemist left him no time for systematic composition. This for Borodin was, in any case, a slow process. Compared with Rimsky-Korsakov, his craftsmanship was modest, but his feeling for orchestral colour and rhythm, his extraordinary melodic gifts and innate evocative powers were the equal of the other four Russian composers who came to be known as ‘the Mighty Handful’ – Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. His meeting in 1862 with the charismatic Balakirev produced the same effect as on the others, a passionate desire to write music that reflected Russia and the Russian people. In much of his music you can hear that enchanting, unique mix of the sensuous Orient and the melancholic Russian, the exotic oriental strain dominating, a characteristic that greatly appealed to the young Debussy.
Borodin’s wife, Ekaterina (or Catherine) Protopopova, whom he married in 1863, was an excellent pianist and, as an admirer of Schumann and Wagner, exerted no little influence on her husband’s music. Liszt, too, helped his growing reputation and championed a number of his works (Borodin was in Germany in 1877 for scientific purposes but found the time to drop in on the Wizard of Weimar and the two men quickly became firm friends). Throughout the 1870s Borodin worked fitfully on various compositions but during the last decade of his life produced very little – the two string quartets, In the Steppes of Central Asia and a suite for piano. After his death (from a burst artery in the heart) Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov, ever the generous colleagues, prepared or completed much of Borodin’s music for performance. In 1953 Robert Wright and George Forrest produced their musical Kismet whose themes are almost entirely taken from Borodin’s work.