Borodin, Alexander

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (31 October 1833 – 15 February 1887)

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (31 October 1833 – 15 February 1887)

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (31 October 1833, St. Petersburg – 15 February 1887, St. Petersburg) was a Russian composer, scientist – chemist and medic. One of the participants of the “Mighty Handful”, which included five Russian composers. The founder of the Russian epic symphony.

Borodin is a unique composer. He showed himself as a great scientist, public figure. In music, Borodin largely continued the traditions of Glinka. Remarkably characterize the appearance of the composer of the words of Vladimir Stasov: “Borodin’s talent is equally powerful and striking as in the symphony, and in the opera and in the romance. Its main qualities are giant strength and breadth, enormous scope, swiftness and impetuosity, combined with amazing passion, tenderness and beauty”.
In his music, Borodin embodied the greatness and power of the Russian people, the heroic character traits of Russian people, the majestic images of the national epic epic. And along with this in the works of Borodin there are images of lyrical, intimate, charmingly sincere, full of passion and tenderness. The main means of musical expression in Borodin is always a melody – broad, song, plastic. Colorfulness, brightness is inherent in the harmonic language of Borodin. Here he acts as an innovator, the creator of bold and unusual chord combinations. All the musical expressive means used by Borodin are harmonious and subject to the strict logic of development.


Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin was born on October 31, 1833 in St. Petersburg. Little Sasha was very talented and hardworking. Even in his childhood, he learned three foreign languages – French, German and English, and in his younger years he studied Italian. During walks the boy liked to listen to a brass band, then picked up the houses by ear heard.

The mother of the future composer was a lover of music, singing Russian songs and romances, playing the guitar. She noticed the musical abilities of the boy. At the age of eight, he begins to take the lessons of the game first on the flute, and then on the pianoforte. At the age of nine, Sasha composed his first piece of music – a polka “Helen”, at thirteen years – a small concert for a flute.

In addition to music, Borodin, from childhood, was fond of chemistry and natural science. His comrade was a musically gifted Mikhail Shchiglev. Mikhail Shchiglev’s father taught mathematics at the Alexandrov Lyceum. The boys together learned music, played four hands, attended symphony concerts.

In 1850, Borodin entered the Medical and Surgical Academy. He was engaged with zeal and dedication. Now for the music there was less time, but on occasion Borodin always tried to play in the ensemble, he listened with the friends – the same music lovers – the romances of Alexander Alyabyev, Alexander Varlamov, Aleksander Gurilev and Constantin Wilboa, and he himself tried to compose romances similar to them. He also composed chamber ensembles. His string trio on the theme of Russian urban song-romance “What I upset you” was very popular with friends. Even then, the young man for the rest of his life felt a deep love for Glinka. The opera “Ivan Susanin” knew by heart. Engaged in the fourth year of the academy, Borodin studied harmony and polyphony.

After the Medico-Surgical Academy, Borodin worked in the hospital for some time. In 1858 he defended his thesis and received the title of Doctor of Sciences. As a promising young scientist, he was sent to a scientific trip abroad for three years. In 1859, Borodin arrived in Germany in the old university town of Heidelberg, one of the then scientific centers of Europe. There were other young Russian scientists: Sechenov, Junge, Botkin and Mendeleev. All of them were united by friendship, enthusiasm for science and love of music. By the time of the end of the trip Borodin was already the author of many printed scientific works. In Heidelberg Borodin got acquainted with the talented Russian pianist Ekaterina Sergeevna Protopopova. With her inspired play she managed to awaken in Borodino a passionate love for Chopin, Schumann, Franz Liszt, which he carried through his whole life. Subsequently, Ekaterina Sergeevna became Borodin’s wife.

In 1862 Borodin returned to Petersburg and became a professor in the Department of Chemistry at the Medical and Surgical Academy. In the same year, another important event occurred: he met Balakirev, became close to him and became a member of the Balakirev circle. On the advice of his oldest friend Borodin began to write a symphony. Over it, he worked for about seven years. The first symphony was performed with great success on January 16, 1869 in a concert of the Russian Musical Society under Balakirev. This marked the beginning of recognition of Borodin as a composer. At the same time, his song-fairy-tale “The Sleeping Princess” and “The Sea Princess”, the mighty “Song of the Dark Forest”, the dramatic ballad “The Sea”, as well as the lyrical romances “Poison full of my songs” appeared on Heine’s words. “Fake note”.

In 1869 a new symphony of heroic character was conceived (finished in 1876). The composer’s friends called her “Slavic heroic”, “The lion’s”, “Bogatyrskaya”. In the same year, work began on the opera “Prince Igor”, which lasted for many years.

In the late 70’s and 80’s, Borodin’s music was gradually gaining recognition at home and abroad. In 1877 he met the famous Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt. At the initiative of Liszt, the first symphony of Borodin was performed at the music festival in Baden-Baden. The success was enormous.

In the winter of 1879, a new piece, the string quartet of Borodin, was performed in one of the chamber concerts of the Russian Musical Society. All attracted in this charming “conversation” four instruments: the smoothness and breadth of the development of musical thought, amazing plasticity and melodiousness. It took little more than two years. January 26, 1882, in one of the Moscow concerts of the Russian Musical Society sounded the second quartet of Borodin in the nature of concentrated lyrical meditation. Especially listeners liked the slow third part – “Nocturne” – the pearl of Russian song lyrics. In the autumn of the same year, Borodin’s second quartet was successfully performed in St. Petersburg. Even then, lovers of ensemble chamber music realized that along with the ensembles of Tchaikovsky, the string quartets of Borodin were a valuable contribution to the treasury of instrumental music.

In the 80s Borodin composed several bright romances and songs: “For the shores of your far homeland/Dlya beregov otchizny dal’noy” by Pushkin’s poetry, the characteristic ironic pictures “At people in the house” by Nekrasov’s words and “Arrogance” to the words of  Alexei Tolstoy, a poetic “Arab melody”. The composer’s great success was also the program symphonic picture “In Central Asia” and “The Little Suite” for pianoforte. Intensively there was work on the third symphony, some parts of which were played by the composer in the circle of friends. Work on the opera also continued. Shortly before his death, Borodin created an overture, aria for the opera “Prince Igor”, “The Villagers’ Chorus”. Still, the composition of the opera progressed slowly. The composer was overwhelmed by scientific and social work. Music creation was hampered by the unsettledness of life, the serious illnesses of his wife.

In the 80 years Borodin’s works are increasingly performed at home and abroad. His symphonies and quartets are gaining worldwide fame and are becoming popular in Europe and America. The performance of his music in 1886 in Antwerp was a triumph.

The morning of Sunday, February 15, 1887, was dedicated to the composition of the grand “Bogatyrsky” finale of the third symphony, and in the evening of the same day Borodin suddenly died of a heart attack. The third symphony remained unrecorded and in fact was lost to Russian music. For Glazunov, who memorized the overall plan of the symphony, has reconstructed from the surviving sketches only two of its first parts.

Borodin and the opera “Prince Igor” did not have time to finish. Her finished Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov. From memory Glazunov restored the overture, which I heard more than once in the performance of the author. He also wrote the whole third act according to the sketches of Borodin. Rimsky-Korsakov re-orchestrated the opera and edited it in his own way. The premiere of the opera took place in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. They met the opera very warmly. In Moscow, it was first staged in 1898 and soon became one of the favorite repertoire works.


A remarkable work of ancient Russian literature of the 12th century – “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” – fascinated Borodin and inspired him to create an opera. In “The Tale of Igor’s Campaign” was told about the unsuccessful campaign of the brave prince Igor against the Polovtsians (The Cumans). He also incorporated material drawn from two medieval Kievan chronicles. Internal strife of the specific princes, their strife and disunity weakened Russia. The author of The Lay of Igor’s Camp called on the Russian princes to unite, and in this patriotic orientation of the work was his enormous progressive role.

The story for the opera was offered to the composer Vladimir Stasov, he also sketched the first draft of the script. And in the years that followed, Vladimir Stasov helped Borodin a lot in his work on the opera: he searched in libraries for materials on the history of Kievan Rus, ancient Russian songs and melodies of Eastern peoples.

“Prince Igor” is a lyric-epic opera in four acts with a prologue. The music of the opera is based on the intonations of folk songs – Russian and Oriental. Bright colors painted folk scenes, both Russian and Oriental. Russia and the East are shown in the opera multifaceted and truthful. In this Borodin was a follower of Glinka, who also found an artistically convincing description of the image of the enemies.

Prologue. Area in Putivl. Igor with his army is going on a campaign against the Polovtsians. The people call the prince, wish him victory over the enemy.

Suddenly, a solar eclipse begins. An incomprehensible phenomenon seems to be a bad omen. But Igor was unshakable. He reassures the people: “We are for the right cause, for faith, for our country, for Russia”. All are full of determination. Only two soldiers Skula and Yeroshka were scared. They decided to flee from the army and go to the service of Prince Galitsky: “There, and nourishing, and drunk, and will be whole”. Igor says goodbye to his wife Yaroslavna. In vain, she sorrowfully laments and persuades her husband to stay. Igor is firm. He instructs Yaroslavna to take care of her brother – Prince Galitsky – and at the head of the army goes on a campaign. The solemn folk chorus “To the Sun of Red Glory!”, Framing the prologue, is built on the melodic turns of Russian songs. In its warehouse is close to the majestic choirs of Glinka’s operas. The choir praises Igor and his son, singing the glory of his squad. The people wish Igor luck in the campaign. The melody of the choir is similar to the melodies of ancient ritual and epic Russian songs:

"Prince Igor" (prologue) score

“Prince Igor” (prologue) score

The scene of the solar eclipse plays an important role in the development of the action. In folk epic poetry, various dramatic events of people’s lives were often compared with the mighty and formidable phenomena of nature. The musical means of the eclipse scene are unusual. The harmonic and melodic language of this episode is based on the sound of an increased triad.

Tower-room of Yaroslavna. A sketch of the scenery of the first action of Borodin's opera "Prince Igor"

Tower-room of Yaroslavna. A sketch of the scenery of the first action of Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor”

The first action. The first picture. Prince’s court of Galitsky. Drunken guests rejoice. Skula and Yeroshka are now working as gudok-players. Skula and Yeroshka  jeers Galitsky mockingly, mockingly telling how the prince’s servants kidnapped the girl for him. Galitsky dreams of becoming a prince on Putivl. The song of Galitsky is a characteristic of a frivolous person, all of whose interests are in reckless festivities. The distinct character of this song is emphasized by sharp accents accompanied by a dashing dancing rhythm.

"Prince Igor" (The song of Galitsky) score

“Prince Igor” (The song of Galitsky) score

Running girls with crying beg to let go of the stolen girlfriend. The girls’ choir “Oh misfortune, oh what grief” is close in its intonations to Russian lamentations.

But Galitsky rudely drives them away. Drunken guests praise the prince.

The second picture. A room in Yaroslavna’s palace. Yaroslavna yearns for Igor and is full of anxiety for him. Girls come and, bitterly lamenting, complain to the princess at Galitsky:

"Prince Igor" (Girls ask Yaroslavna to intercede and return their girlfriend) score

“Prince Igor” (Girls ask Yaroslavna to intercede and return their girlfriend) score

Seeing Galitsky, the girls are running in fear. Yaroslavna angrily scolds Galitsky, but it looks self-confident and arrogant, trying to threaten her sister. Yaroslavna threatens to send Galitsky home to their father and demands to return the girl. The boyars enter with unkind news: Igor’s army was defeated, the prince and his son were captured by the Polovtsians (The Сumans). The chorus sounds harsh, restrained and even gloomy. The sound of the male voices in the low register, the strict and measured accompaniment of the orchestra create the impression of inexorably advancing misfortune:

"Prince Igor" (The boyars enter with unkind news) score

“Prince Igor” (The boyars enter with unkind news) score

Yaroslavna is desperate, but the boyars calm her: “We princess, it is not the first time, under the walls of the city at the gates, to meet enemies”. The alarm goes off, a fire breaks out outside Putivl. This approach the Polovtsians. Boyars and militiamen go to fight the enemy. Women wail sadly.

The Polovtsian (The Сumans) camp. Sketch of scenery by Ivan Bilibin

The Polovtsian (The Сumans) camp. Sketch of scenery by Ivan Bilibin

The second action is devoted to showing another world – the life of the Eastern peoples. Borodin thoughtfully studied the Central Asian and Caucasian tunes. Apparently, he did not use authentic eastern melodies here, but he translated their intonations and peculiarities of harmony into his music. All oriental scenes of the opera are colorful and juicy harmonies.

Warm southern evening. Polovtsian girls sing and dance. Young daughter of khan Konchak – beautiful Konchakovna – is waiting for a meeting with Vladimir. They gently and tenderly confess to each other in their feelings (duet). But Prince Igor does not yet give consent to their wedding. Hearing the steps, they hide.

Prince Igor is one. He is seriously experiencing defeat of his troops, he yearns in captivity.

Prince Igor’s aria is one of the best places in the opera. It depicts the main character of the opera – a courageous valorous warrior, ready to fight for his native land, and at the same time a suffering man with a loving heart.

The first phrases of the orchestra are introduced into a mood of concentrated meditation: “No sleep, no rest to the exhausted soul …”. Recollection of the fateful battle near the river Kayala and the death of the Russian rat arouses in the prisoner a passionate striving for freedom, a dream of a new campaign against the enemy. Full of irresistible impulse and courageous strength, this is the main heroic theme of the aria “Oh, give me, give me freedom”.

"Prince Igor", Igor's aria (Oh, give me, give me freedom) score

“Prince Igor”, Igor’s aria (Oh, give me, give me freedom) score

Bright contrast sounds bright lyrical middle part of the aria – the appeal of Prince Igor to his beloved Yaroslavna (“You are alone, dove fret”):

"Prince Igor", Igor's aria (You are alone, dove fret) score

“Prince Igor”, Igor’s aria (You are alone, dove fret) score

Then again comes the theme of the heavy mental torment of the captive prince. And even more dramatically and tensely sounds the heroic theme of the pursuit of freedom. The sorrowful music of concentrated meditation (from the introduction to the aria) symmetrically fringes the entire aria.

Baptized polovchinin Ovlur secretly talks with Prince Igor, offering to arrange an escape for him. First Igor refuses with indignation, because he does not want to break this khan Konchaku promise, but then decides to think.

The morning comes. Khan Konchak returns from hunting. His great aria is a living characteristic of this wild, unbridled man and at the same time a manly warrior. In his own way he is even noble: his attitude towards Igor is friendly, he took Igor on bail, he is even ready to let him go if the prince gives his word not to raise arms against him. Not an enemy, but a true ally, he wants to see in the person of the Russian prince:

Ah, not your enemy.
And an ally loyal,
A friend is reliable,
And your brother I wanted to be,
You believe me!

But Igor is honest. He responds directly and boldly:

If only you give me freedom,
The army I will again assemble
And I’ll hit you again …

Lead slaves. They sing and dance. Their songs and dances are full of sadness and gentle charm:

"Prince Igor" (Fly away on the wings of wind) score

“Prince Igor” (Fly away on the wings of wind) score

Thoughtfully dreamy song-dance “Fly away on the wings of the wind” is replaced by the wild, warlike dance of men in the rhythm of the lezginka. Then follows the general dance with the chorus celebrating the valor and strength of Khan. It is replaced by the boys’ dance – flexible and easy. Then all these dances alternate and everything ends with a common climactic dance. “Polovtsian/Cumans songs and dances” are a ballet vocal and orchestral suite, based on a truly symphonic development of different oriental images: sincere lyrical, courageous, belligerent.

Third action. The Polovtsian camp. Polovtsi meet the detachment of Khan Hzak. His soldiers lead the Russian prisoners and carry prey. Prince Igor and Vladimir bitterly watch what is happening. Polovtsi glorify the cruel Khan Hzak and his army. In his harsh and wild song Khan Konchak boasts of victories. Then the soldiers are going to divide the prey. Under the impression of what he saw, Prince Igor decided to flee. At night, he prepares to escape with the help of Ovlur. Konchakovna begs Vladimir to stay and detains him, raising the alarm. The Polovtsians flock in alarm. Konchak is delighted with Igor’s bold runaway. He announces the upcoming wedding of his daughter with the Russian prince: “If the falcon flew to the nest, we fetter the falconer as a beautiful girl”. Polovtsi are preparing a new campaign against Russia.

The fourth action. At the city wall of Putivl, destroyed by the Polovtsians, Yaroslavna bitterly mourns the sad fate of Igor.

Yaroslavna’s lament arises from the old Loud tears and lamentations with the characteristic intonations of the enlarged second and subtle melodic ornamentation:

"Prince Igor" (Yaroslavna's lament) score

“Prince Igor” (Yaroslavna’s lament) score

In her Lament Yaroslavna is depicted as a typical Russian woman, who is suffering the defeat of Igor’s army and the ruin of the region. The longing and sorrow of Yaroslavna are emphasized by her comparison with the unhappy cuckoo. This image is often found in Russian and Ukrainian folklore. The second theme of Lamentation (“I’m a Cuckoo Migrant”) is the same agitated lyrical melody as in the middle part of Igor’s aria.

Yaroslavna appeal to the forces of nature – wind, sun, to a wide and glorious river Dnepr – gives her the image of the native features of the ancient Slavic women. It’s not for nothing that Her weeping and arioso “How dull everything is all around” merge with the chorus of the ruined villagers: Yaroslavna is experiencing a common grief with the people.

One of the genius places of the opera is the choir of the villagers “Oh, not a riotous wind” in the manner of a chanting lingering song. Opening a monophonic song, the song gradually “overgrown” with expressive echoes. And in each next stanza the tune goes (as sometimes happens in folk singing) to a new chant.

But here riders appear in the distance. With great joy, Yaroslavna recognizes Igor. Skula and Yeroshka also notice him. Sneaky soldiers are frightened by the return of the prince. But then cunning people decide to convene the people and the first to announce the return of Prince Igor. There is an alarm ringing. The people joyously meets the prince. The opera action ends with overall jubilation.

Opera “Prince Igor” – one of the best creations of opera classics. The composer devoted her memory to Glinka. It celebrates the heroic spirit of the people, their steadfastness, patriotism, spiritual beauty. A vivid embodiment of the life of ancient Rus and semi-wild steppe nomads. The opera enjoys constant success and the love of the broad masses of listeners.


Borodin wrote eighteen romances and songs for the texts of Pushkin, Nekrasov, Tolstoy, Heine, and some – on their own poems. In content, the romances and songs of Borodin are very different. Along with the pages of subtle poetic lyrics, they are characterized by the images of a powerful folk force (“Song of the Dark Forest”), and sometimes live, sharp humor. Borodin did not try, like Dargomyzhsky and Mussorgsky, to translate speech intonations into music. He took as his basis the general mood of the poem. In each song and romance in the foreground is a plastic and expressive melody. A great artistic significance also belongs to the piano party, in which individual images of the poetic text often arise.
Romance “For the shores of your far homeland/ Dlya beregov otchizny dal’noy” on Pushkin’s poems was created in 1881. Romance was accompanied by the experience of the premature death of Mussorgsky – a faithful friend of Borodin and a comrade-in-arms for the common cause.
The music of the romance conveys a feeling of deep, restrained sorrow, caused by a heavy loss. Pushkin’s poem tells of the grief of the poet’s separation from the beloved, of her calling him to leave the “Gloomy house of exile/Mrachnyy dom izgnan’ya”, calling to where the “Sky is ever blue/Nebo vechno goluboye”, and how prematurely she “Fell asleep last night/Usnula poslednim snom”.
The sad meaning of this poem is expressed in music simply and with restraint. Following Pushkin’s text, Borodin gave the romance a three-part structure. The first and third parts tell of a farewell meeting with the beloved and his death. Music is of a mournful, concentrated nature. The vocal part is stated in a sing-declamatory manner. In her predominantly the second intonations, alternating with soft moves per third. Impression of spiritual stiffness is complemented by piano accompaniment. Measuring discordant chords in a minor sound, basses dull and deep resound. In all the numbness of grief, the feeling of unavoidable impending disaster:

"For the shores of your far homeland" score

“For the shores of your far homeland” score

In the middle part of the story refers to the unfulfilled hopes of happiness, and the opposite – the beautiful land, where music at times seems to lighten. The melody becomes less constrained. In it there are melodious melodic turns, moves at wide intervals. Minor sound is replaced by the major. However, here again the character of music remains sad and restrained.
The romance ends with a recitative phrase on the main tonic foundation. In combination with discordant chords of accompaniment, it gives the music a tragic sound.

Romances and songs of Borodin are a unique page of Russian vocal music. They have strong-willed images of a mighty young force (The Song of the Dark Forest, the ballad The Sea), the profound wisdom of the fairy tale story (The Sleeping Princess), intense lyrical experiences (My Songs are full of poison).

Creativity Borodin – a treasure of Russian music. It is not so great in the number of written works, but covers almost all musical genres. Along with the profound transformation of the melodic structure of Russian folk music, an important place in Borodin’s work was occupied also by images of the East. The composer studied with interest the authentic oriental tunes, using their expressive features as lovingly as the Russian song intonations. An original melodic warehouse of the folklore of the Oriental peoples inspired Borodin to create vividly realistic images.

In the works of Borodin, the historical events of the past, the stately heroic images of the Russian epic were reflected. Borodin’s music is the embodiment of courage, bright optimism, epic grandeur combined with inspirational and gentle lyrics.

The traditions of Borodin found their continuation in the symphonies of Glazunov and partly of Kalinnikov. Among his followers in the XX century can be named primarily Prokofiev, Shaporin, Sviridov.

2 thoughts on “Borodin, Alexander

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