Alexander Porfir'yevich Borodin (November 12, 1833 - February 27, 1887) was a genius in several fields. The illegitimate son of a nobleman and a peasant, his aristocratic connection allowed him to receive a better education than almost any other serf of his time. His father, at his death in 1843, freed Borodin from serfdom.
Borodin began to compose music in his teens. He studied piano and taught himself the cello. He also began to study chemistry, beginning because he wanted to make fireworks. Soon, however, his passion for chemistry as a subject in itself eclipsed his interest in music. At the time, one could not obtain a separate degree in chemistry, and so Borodin began as a medical student. On graduation, he became an army surgeon. In fact, it was in the army that he met a young officer named Modest Mussorgsky. In any case, Borodin had so distinguished himself, that he was sent to Heidelberg for further study, where he came into contact with Mendeleyev, the architect of the periodic table. He also spent time conducting research in Italy, after his fiancée was ordered there by a doctor for reasons of health. He continued to compose in his off-hours, but the works, with few exceptions, were not especially distinguished. In 1863, he married. Borodin's musical output, although brilliant, was constrained by the demands of job and family throughout his life. For a major composer, he has a very, very slim catalogue.
In 1862, he met Mily Balakirev and became part of the so-called "Mighty Five" or "Mighty Handful," a loose group of composers who aimed to write a "Russian" music, as opposed to a "German" one. Balakirev had many shortcomings as a human being, but he was a first-class encourager of artistic ambition. Under Balakirev's prodding and enthusiasm, Borodin began his first symphony. With the pressures of job and family, the score took him four years to complete and finally received its successful premiere in 1869, seven years after it was begun.
Borodin's triumph with his first symphony spurred him to start on his second, also in 1869. He also became involved with an opera project which was to become Prince Igor. He abandoned the opera in 1870, because he thought his talent lay in lyricism, rather than drama and went back to the symphony. His activities in chemistry and in teaching reached their peaks during this time as well (he published over forty original articles), and he became involved in a controversy over priority in his research with a German chemist. Although he successfully defended his claims and his integrity, he became frustrated over lack of funding in Russia for chemical research and abandoned his original work. From then on, his chemistry activities consisted of supervising the work of his students. Although he carried out his duties faithfully and well, he pretty much lost his enthusiasm for chemistry.
He found more time for music and for composition. From his period come the epic Second Symphony (1869-76), the two string quartets (1874-79 and 1881), and In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880). In the 1870s, due largely to the efforts of Franz Liszt, his works began to make inroads in concert halls in the West. The 1880s, however, brought his wife's declining health and increasing demands from his teaching, all of which slowed him down once again. He completed no major works after 1881. He died of congestive heart failure, appropriately enough for one so amiable, joking and having a good time at a party. Prince Igor and the Third Symphony remained unfinished at his death. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff and Alexander Glazunov completed the opera, and Glazunov edited the symphony from the materials Borodin left behind.~ Steve Schwartz