Nov 122013


Today is the birthday (1833) of Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin, Russian Romantic composer, chemist, and physician. He was a member of the group of composers called The Five (or “The Mighty Handful”), who were dedicated to producing a specifically Russian kind of art music. He is best known for his symphonies, his two string quartets, “In the Steppes of Central Asia,” and his opera Prince Igor. Music from Prince Igor and his string quartets was later adapted for the U.S. musical Kismet. He was a notable advocate of women’s rights and a proponent of education for women in Russia. He founded the School of Medicine for Women in St. Petersburg.

Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg, the illegitimate son of a Georgian noble, Luka Gedevanishvili, and a 24-year-old Russian woman, Evdokia Konstantinovna Antonova. His father had him baptized and registered as the son of one of his serfs, Porfiry Borodin, hence his name.  Borodin would have remained a serf were it not for the fact that his father died when he was very young and so his mother was able to raise him within her family’s rank. As such he received a good education, including piano lessons. He also set up a chemistry lab at home at age 13.

In 1850 he entered the Imperial Medical–Surgical Academy in St Petersburg and pursued a career in chemistry. On graduation he spent a year as surgeon in a military hospital, followed by three years of advanced scientific study in western Europe. In 1862 Borodin returned to St Petersburg to take up a professorial chair in chemistry at the Medical-Surgical Academy and spent the remainder of his scientific career in research, lecturing and overseeing the education of others. Eventually (1872), he managed to establish medical courses for women.

He married Ekaterina Protopopova, a pianist, in 1863, and adopted several children in need. Music remained a secondary vocation for Borodin outside his main career as a chemist. He suffered poor health, having overcome cholera and several minor heart attacks. He died suddenly during a ball at the Academy (aged 53), and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, in Saint Petersburg.

[People with no interest in chemistry can skip this section. Just note that Borodin was a brilliant chemist who in a later era might well have won a Nobel.]

In his profession Borodin gained great respect, being particularly noted for his work on aldehydes. Between 1859 and 1862 he worked in the laboratory of Emil Erlenmeyer in Heidelberg investigating benzene derivatives. He also spent time in Pisa, working on organic halogens. One experiment published in 1862 described the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride.  A related reaction known outside Russia as the Hunsdiecker reaction (published in 1939 by the Hunsdieckers) was promoted by the Soviet Union as the Borodin reaction.

borodin aldol re

In 1862 he returned to the Medical–Surgical Academy, taking up a chair in chemistry, where he worked on self-condensation of small aldehydes. Borodin is co-credited with the discovery of the Aldol reaction, with Charles-Adolphe Wurtz. In 1872 he announced to the Russian Chemical Society the discovery of a new by-product in aldehyde reactions with alcohol-like properties (pictured), and he noted similarities with compounds already discussed in publications by Wurtz from the same year. He published his last full article in 1875 on reactions of amides.

[Non-chemistry fans can rejoin the party]

Borodin met Mily Balakirev (leader of The Five) in 1862. While under Balakirev’s instruction in composition he began his Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, first performed in 1869, with Balakirev conducting. In that same year Borodin started on his Symphony No. 2 in B minor, which was not particularly successful at its premiere in 1877 under Eduard Nápravník. Many scholars now attribute the initial lack of success of the symphony to Nápravník’s leaden and labored conducting. Nonetheless Borodin made some changes in orchestration, and the piece received glowing reviews when it was performed in 1879 by the Free Music School under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s direction. Beware who you choose to conduct your music!

In 1880 he composed the popular symphonic poem “In the Steppes of Central Asia.”  The symphonic poem genre can tend towards sprawling, and overwrought pieces. Borodin’s is simple and elegant.

Borodin described it in the concert program for the premiere as follows:

In the silence of the monotonous deserts of Central Asia are heard for the first time the strains of a peaceful Russian song. From the distance we hear the approach of horses and camels and the melancholy notes of an oriental melody. A caravan emerges out of the boundless steppe, escorted by Russian soldiers and continues safely and fearlessly on its long way, protected by the formidable military power of the conquerors. It slowly disappears. The tranquil songs of conqueror and conquered merge in harmony, echoes of which linger on as the caravan disappears in the distance.

Two years later he began composing a third symphony, but left it unfinished at his death; two movements of it were later completed and orchestrated by Alexander Glazunov.

In 1868 Borodin became distracted from his initial work on the second symphony by preoccupation with the opera Prince Igor. It contains the Polovtsian Dances, often performed as a stand-alone concert work and forming what is probably Borodin’s best known composition. Borodin left the opera incomplete at his death. Prince Igor was completed posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. It is set in the 12th century, when the barbarous Polovtsians invaded southern Russia. The story tells of the capture of Prince Igor and son Vladimir of Russia by Polovtsian leader Khan Konchak, who entertains his prisoners lavishly and calls on his slaves to perform the famous Polovtsian dances, which provide a dramatic climax to the second act.

No other member of the Balakirev circle identified himself so openly with so-called “absolute music” (music that is not “about” anything other than music) as did Borodin in his two string quartets. He was an enthusiastic chamber music player (cello), an interest that deepened during his chemical studies in Heidelberg between 1859 and 1861. This early period yielded, among other chamber works, a string sextet and a piano quintet.  In 1875 Borodin started his First String Quartet; his Second followed in 1881.

The fact that Borodin had an active and time consuming job as a research chemist, and yet could write such masterpieces baffles many. Harold Schonberg, music historian, wrote, “How he found time to compose anything remains a mystery.” Borodin himself noted, “In winter I can only compose when I am too unwell to give my lectures. So never say to me, ‘I hope you are well,’ but ‘I hope you are ill.’ “It seems to me, and others, that in this rare case, Borodin’s vocation as a chemist worked to his advantage for several reasons.  His simple lack of time for music meant that he could not get endlessly wrapped up in the analysis of works of other composers or in music theory; he could not become enmeshed in the potentially incestuous world of music alone.  Furthermore, he did not have a unilateral mindset.  Both scientists and composers solve problems but they are of a different kind. Just as people who are bilingual may (not always) have an expanded view of the capacities of language giving them a broader sense of how meaning operates, so Borodin’s bi-intellectualism gave him a wider sense of creative possibilities – perhaps in both fields (I don’t know of any study on how his musical ability affected his chemical research but I have long believed that at times the arts have influenced creative thinking in science).

There is no question that Borodin’s approach to harmonies, keys, and rhythms was original in a host of ways.  In his day there were many composers and critics who were mystified by his approach, not really grasping it and even deriding it.  But he left a mark. Both Debussy and Ravel acknowledged a debt, the latter writing a piano piece in 1913 entitled “À la manière de Borodine” in homage.

Nor should it be overlooked that Borodin wrote some great melodies – so much so, that Robert Wright and George Forrest were able to adapt them for their highly successful musical Kismet, perhaps remembered still for “Stranger in Paradise” using a theme from the Polovtsian Dances of Prince Igor.  In 1954, Borodin was posthumously given a Tony Award for the music of this show.

I would have loved to have provided a recipe based on Borodin’s chemistry but, sadly, aldehydes are responsible for such problems as the rancid smell of overused cooking oils, and are potentially toxic. So I will fall back on St Petersburg recipes.  The most well known of these is beef Stroganoff, supposedly invented there in a cooking competition. However, everyone cooks that – hardly an eye-opener.  Just be sure to use sour cream when you make it.  Instead I will go with solyanka, a rich soup/stew that is actually pan-Russian, but I’m told on good authority they make a mean one in St Petersburg.  It is thick, slightly sweet, and sour, coming in endless varieties — meat, fish, vegetarian.  The common ingredient is cucumbers pickled in brine (not vinegar).  Solyanka comes from a root meaning “salt.”  In this version you should try to use as many different kinds of smoked meats as you can – sausages, different hams, ribs . . . Variety is important.




1 ½ lb stewing beef
1 unpeeled onion, washed
2  unpeeled carrots, washed
1 whole washed, unpeeled head of garlic
2 stalks of celery, washed

2 lbs mixed smoked meats, diced
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1 onion, peeled and diced
4 brined cucumbers, diced small
5 tbsps tomato paste
3 tbsps capers
black pepper
3 bay leaves
vegetable oil
¼ cup olives sliced
sour cream
1 tbsp fresh dill plus garnish


Place all the broth ingredients in a large pot.  Cover with water.  Bring to a rolling simmer. Skim scum as it rises.  Cover and simmer about 1 ½ hrs, or until the beef is tender.

Remove the beef and let cool, then dice fine. Discard the vegetables.  Reserve the broth.

Sauté the smoked meats in a little vegetable oil in batches until lightly browned.  Reserve.

In a heavy skillet sauté the onions until translucent.  Add the carrots and continue cooking, then add the brined cucumbers and cook a few minutes more.  Add the tomato paste and a tablespoon of water and gently simmer for 5 minutes. Reserve.

Bring the beef stock to a rolling boil.  Add the smoked meats, beef, and capers.  Simmer for 5 minutes to heat the meats, then add the sautéed vegetables, olives, bay leaves, dill, and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and simmer covered for 15 minutes.

Serve in bowls with a dollop of sour cream mixed with dill (or pass a bowl for guests to serve themselves)

Serves 6-8