Alexander Borodin

Portrait of Alexander Borodin

Alexander Borodin was a Romantic composer and chemist of Georgian-Russian extraction. He was one of the prominent 19th-century Russian composers known as “The Five”. He was born on 12th November 1833 in Saint Petersburg, Russia and died there on 27th February 1887 aged 53.

Major Works

Symphony No 3 (1887)
“Prince Igor” (first performed 1890)
“In the Steppes of Central Asia” (1880)
“Polovtsian Dances” (1887 – incomplete at death)

Biography Timeline

Alexander Borodin was born on 12th November 1833 in St Petersburg, Russia. He was the illegitmate son of Prince Luka Stepanovich Gedevanishvili, a 62-year-old nobleman and his 24-year-old married lover, Evdokia Konstantinova Antonova. He was registered as Alexander Porforyevich Borodin, under the name of one of his Serf’s to avoid a scandal.

1840: His natural father frees him from serfdom aged seven and provides money for his mother and the boy. His mother never publicly acknowledges him but he is educated at home by private tutors.

1850: He enrols at the Medical–Surgical Academy in Saint Petersburg and studies chemistry. On graduation he spends a year as surgeon in a military hospital. 

1859: He takes up a postdoctoral position at Heidelberg University where he works on benzene derivatives with Emil Erlenmeyer. At the same time, he is a passionate cellist and writes a number of chamber works including a string sextet. He is heavily influenced by Felix Mendelssohn and makes friends with the composer Modest Mussorgsky whilst there.

1861: He meets and falls in love with Ekaterina Protopopova, a 29-year-old piano virtuoso who is a great influence on his musical career. Meanwhile as a chemist he is the first to show the radical halodecarboxylation of aliphatic carboxylic acids by synthesising methyl bromide from silver acetate.

1862: He meets the composer Mily Balakirev who gives him lessons and is inspired to complete his Piano Quintet and also starts work on his First symphony. He also works with other members dubbed “The Five”, namely Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky and Cesar Cui.

1863: Borodin and Ekaterina marry and go on to adopt several daughters.

1864: Having completed his doctoral studies, he returns to St Petersburg to become a professor of chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy and continues with his chemical experiments. He also translates scientific papers, books and journals into Russian.

1868: He breaks off from his work on the Second Symphony and concentrates on his opera “Prince Igor” which includes the famous “Polovtsian Dances”. The opera was incomplete at his death and was finally finished by Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov.

1869: His Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major is first performed with Balakirev conducting.  He continues work on the Second Symphony.

1872: He establishes the first medical courses for women in Russia.

1873: He describes his chemical work to the Russian Chemical Society.

1875: He publishes his last full scientific article about the identification of urea in animal urine. Borodin begins composing his First String Quartet, much to the annoyance of Mussorgsky and other members of “The Five” who dislike chamber music.

1877: His Symphony No. 2 in B minor is given its premiere with Eduard Napravnik conducting but is not well received by the audience.

1880: He composes the symphonic poem “In the Steppes of Central Asia”.  His music is given a wider public by Franz Liszt who arranges a performance of the First Symphony in Germany.

1881: Borodin’s Second String Quartet is completed.

1882: He begins composing a third symphony, but this is left unfinished at his death, although two movements were later completed by Alexander Glazunov.

Alexander Borodin died on 27th February 1887 of a sudden heart attack at a ball at the Conservatory in St Petersburg. His wife Ekaterina died five months later. He is buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg alongside Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.