Borodin – The Polymath of St. Petersburg


As I approach the 27th of February, I cannot help but turn for inspiration to the life and music of Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer, who died on that day in his place of birth, Imperial St. Petersburg, in 1887.

Borodin from an early age had a love of music and science in seemingly equal proportion – something that mirrored my own proclivities, but with widely different outcomes. He, though unusually precocious in music, did not plan to become a professional musician and went on to graduate in 1856 with highest honors from the Imperial Medical–Surgical Academy. Indeed, he went on – after six years away mainly in Europe – to become professor of chemistry back at the Academy.

Music as Avocation, not Vocation
“As a composer seeking to remain anonymous, I am shy of confessing my musical activity… For others it is their chief business, the occupation and aim of life. For me it is a relaxation, a pastime which distracts me from my principal business, my professorship. I love my profession and my science. I love the Academy and my pupils, male and female, because to direct the work of young people, one must be close to them. – Borodin

A turning point in Borodin’s trajectory came about due to his friendship with Mily Balakirev, another polymath, who was instrumental in firing his older compatriot’s ambition to write national Russian music.

As an aside, a turning point in my own career path from an industrial gases general manager and avocation as pianist-cum-composer to a vocation as an orchestra manager came about as a result of my representing the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra (where I was the Honorary Concert Manager) at the Annual Conference in San Diego, CA, of the American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) in the summer of 1974.

It was my first visit to the USA and in between sessions on orchestral governance I happened to meet the contingent from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) that was on the lookout for a conductor and an assistant general manager. Before returning to Calcutta, I was prevailed upon to fly via Rochester en route to India so that I could be  interviewed by the RPO Board for the AGM position. I took the bull by the horns – I happen to be a Taurus! – and presented myself to the Board with Robert (Bob) Strassenberg in the Chair. It was a hastily arranged meeting due to the fact that earlier in the summer the Board had been voted out of office at the instance of two heavy hitters, who represented the two major Rochester industries and supporters of RPO – Kodak’s Chairman and Xerox’s Vice-Chairman. The latter two were both present, and I must assume that because of my own unlikely twin background in both industry and music I was voted in with the promise that I’d be back in Rochester no later than by end-November although the pay was modest even by Indian corporate standards.

And so it was that kismet (destiny) brought me and my family to these shores on a permanent basis to serve in the ‘classical music industry’ that is so instrumental in enlivening most metropolitan downtowns in the USA.

Borodin’s Compositions
Borodin completed his first symphony in 1867 that was successfully premiered in St. Petersburg under Balakirev on January the 16th that year. Thereafter, Borodin divided his energies equally between science and music. As a scientist he lectured, taught, translated treatises, and did valuable research. As a composer, he identified himself with the national group, “The Russian Five,” producing music whose roots were deeply embedded in the soil of Russian folksong and dance. The four other composers were Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev: they banded together with the common aim of creating music a la Russian folk songs and dances.

On May 24, 1867, Balakirev led a concert in St. Petersburg devoted to the music of Borodin and of the other four aforementioned composers: it was a memorable occasion and inspired the Russian critic, Vladimir Stassov, to dub them “The Mighty Five.” Like his colleagues, Borodin was best in writing music with a text or program which absorbed stylistic traits of Russian folk music. But unlike them he like to blend his Russian idioms with Oriental rhythms, melodies and instrumental colors.

Borodin died of a burst aneurysm on February 27, 1887. His untimely death meant that he left behind manuscripts of unfinished compositions, and it was left to some of his colleagues, mainly Rimsky-Korsakov but – outside “The Russian Five” – also Glazunov (who despite being a traditionalist remained faithful to the national principles of The Five, interrupted their own musical output to finish as best as they could some of what are now a central part of romantic orchestral literature.

Examples of that collaborative effort abound. His most important instrumental works include 3 symphonies, the tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia, 2 string quartets, and the Petite Suite for piano. The wildly popular Polovstian Dances, a series of dances for orchestra from his opera, Prince Igor, that occur towards the end of Act 2, when Khan Konchak, ruler of the Polovtsi, entertains his captives, Prince Igor and the Prince’s sons, with tribal dances. The Overture to Prince Igor alone is well worth listening to, if you have the time. (All of the above examples I’ve given are to be found on YouTube.)

On a personal note, I was a college student in London in the 1950’s when I attended a memorable and ravishing performance of the arena-style opera performance  of Borodin’s Prince Igor at Earl Courts Exhibition Centre already made famous by its lavish presentations of well-known operas like Carmen and Aida. This time it was the famous Kirov Theater Opera and Ballet company from St. Petersburg that was on stage, and it made a lasting impression on me. It also made me explore later in life Borodin’s other works of note, including his chamber music. Before returning to India, I had occasion to spend time in that enduringly beautiful Imperial-era city when I visited the Kirov Theater.

One of my Borodin favorites has been his String Quartet No. 2 in D major, which is at its best in the third movement, a Nocturne (Andante). Its expressive twenty-four bar melody is stated by the cello against syncopated chords. The rest of the Quartet is lyrical and pronouncedly national. In the scherzo movement, the composer uses an infectious waltz melody in thirds for the violins.


Borodin was buried at the Tikhivin Cemetery in St. Petersburg. There I saw the heroic monuments erected in the memory of not only Borodin but my other favorite composer, Tchaikovsky. The former’s striking bust is shown alongside backed by a part transcription of one of his compositions.

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 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 my favorite song “Stranger in Paradise” (starring Ann Blyth and Vic Damone.) In 1954, Borodin was posthumously awarded a Tony Award for that show.

My Diary of 1959-69; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen; Wikipedia

Copyright © 2016 Azim Lewis Mayadas


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