Everyone’s heard of Tchaikovsky, but not so many of Borodin, though his music was plundered for “Kismet” and turned into “Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise.” He was one of five 19th century Russian composers called, ‘The Mighty Little Heap’. They were ‘amateurs’ in that they held ‘academic’ music in contempt, and ‘nationalists’ in that they wanted to write ‘Russian’ music, whatever that might turn out to be.
In 1850, Borodin entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Medicine and Surgery, was a distinguished student, and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Medicine. He was sent abroad to study, and met his future wife who was an accomplished pianist. Following his return to Russia, he became professor of organic chemistry at the Academy of Medicine, and he and his wife moved into an apartment in the Academy building – where complete chaos reigned !
Hordes of students daily swarmed through it; lots of relatives kept turning up expecting board and lodging; people slept on floors or dozed in chairs; meal times were wildly irregular and shared with a colony of rampant cats; there were half-unpacked suitcases among piles of books and sheets of music. And in the midst of this mad mélange, Borodin composed music, every so often stopping to rush (still singing his music) through to the lab in case anything was boiling over or exploding, and then back to pick up the music where he’d left off.
Borodin also found time to be a ‘women’s champion’, arguing for the right of women to access education, and putting words into action by co-founding the St. Petersburg Women’s Medical School, where he gave free lectures in chemistry. His death was, perhaps, in keeping with his life. He loved company, fun and practical jokes. When attending a dance given by one of the Academy professors, he arrived in a Russian costume with red blouse and black jackboots. In the midst of the jollity and frolics, he suddenly fell straight backwards onto the floor. His friends thought it was another of his jokes, but it wasn’t. His heart had finally given out.
It’s hardly surprising that he worked at his music in a piecemeal fashion, starting and stopping and picking up again. His masterpiece, the opera “Prince Igor” was left unfinished and had to be completed by others. It’s no wonder his music was plundered. He’s been described as having “one of the finest lyric gifts which has yet appeared in Russian music”. If you like ‘good tunes’, try the brief but beautiful “In the Steppes of Central Asia” in which an Oriental and then a Russian melody, after being heard separately, are then heard in combination, as a camel caravan slowly disappears into the far distance.
Here is some music you may well have heard. It’s from Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” and is the famous ‘Polovtsian Dances’ which have been described as “opera ballet music at its zenith of sheer brilliance … blending lyric beauty with breathless rhythm, exotic harmony and dazzling colour.” Go on, indulge yourself ….. once it’s started you’ll have to finish ….
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