Alexander Porphirievich Borodin was born in 1833 in Georgia, the illegitimate son of a serf and a Georgian prince. His mother later married a retired doctor, and Alexander was brought up in St. Petersburg with a good education. He got into the Academy of Medicine in St. Petersburg in 1850 where he studied to become a scientist. From 1864 until his death in 1887, he was a professor of chemistry at the St. Petersburg Military Academy; he both taught and did research. He worked hard to establish a medical school for women in Russia. Women were not admitted to the Academy, although there was some relaxation of the restrictions during the more liberal 1860's. Borodin's laboratory became the first place women were legally allowed to study medicine, but the right was eventually revoked by order of the repressive regime of Tsar Alexander III.
Borodin dropped dead of a stroke at a party in 1887.
He showed an early interest in music, and from a young age played the flute and piano. He wrote a piano duet at the age of nine. After graduation from the Medical Academy, he fell under the influence of the Russian composer Mily Balakirev and studied composition with him. Balakirev, Bodorin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, and Modest Mussorgsky became known as the Mighty Five or the Mighty Bunch in St. Petersburg cultural circles in the 1860's. They started the Free Music Academy, advocating music education for everyone, in opposition to the "official" Academy of Music in St. Petersburg, founded by Anton Rubenstein and supported by the imperial government. As nationalism swept across the European continent and elsewhere, the Mighty Five, along with artists and musicians all over Russia, wanted to create art and music that was distinctly Russian, turning away from the influences of western Europe. While many composers at the time, like Chaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, drew on Russian folk melodies for inspiration, Borodin did not; but he related his music to images of Russian places and themes.
His friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsokov said about Borodin: "Borodin was an exceedingly cordial and cultured man, pleasant and oddly witty to talk with. On visiting him I often found him working in the laboratory which adjoined his apartment. When he sat over his retorts filled with some colourless gas and distilled it by means of a tube from one vessel into another, Iused to tell him that he was transfusing emptiness into vacancy."(2)
Most composers in St. Petersburg did not make their primary living composing, and in this tradition, Borodin kept his job at the St. Petersburg Military Academy, even after he began composing a lot of music. His first symphony was written during the years 1862-1867 and performed in 1869; his second symphony took from 1869-1876; and his third symphony, begun in 1882, was not completed before he died. He never had the time to compose that he wanted to have. Besides his symphonies, he wrote piano music, short works like "In the Steppes of Central Asia" recalling the country of his birth, and a major opera, Prince Igor, which was also unfinished at the time of his death. Rimsky-Korsakov and one of his students, Alexander Glazunof, finished Prince Igor; Glazunof alone finished the two existing movements of Borodin's third symphony from notes left by Borodin.
The sound clip below is from the second movement of the Third Symphony, which uses many different rhythms and key shifts, and features quick movement between major and minor keys.
Long after Borodin's death in 1887, his music was used for a Broadway show, Kismet. Kismet had been a play, written in 1911, and had been made into a movie twice. Charles Lederer and Luther Davis adapted it for Broadway, and Borodin's music was reworked by Robert Wright and George Forrest to fit the story of a poet-thief who becomes the Emir of Baghdad in a magical day. The two clips below are an example of Borodin's original work and the same music in its Broadway rendition. The original comes from the fourth movement of his first symphony. The song from Kismet is entitled "Gesticulate."
The best known melody of Borodin's was also used in Kismet, where it was the major popular hit song from 1953, "Stranger in Paradise," popularized by Tony Bennett. It came from the Polovtsian Dances, which were orchestral pieces in Borodin's opera Prince Igor. The dances, like much of Borodin's other work, have a noticeable Asian flavor to them. The sound clip below is the first appearance of this musical theme in the 8th Polovtsian dance.