Alexander Borodin

More and more it seems to me that Borodin, with all his limitations, was one of the most perfect composers, as regards workmanship, that ever lived.’ No, that’s not a eulogy by one of Borodin’s colleagues from the ‘Mighty Handful’ (or ‘Kuchka’ to use the Russian term), but words written some 32 years after his death by the English composer Philip Heseltine, better known under his pseudonym Peter Warlock. Warlock’s views were far from exceptional in the early 20th century. When Vaughan Williams came to Paris in 1907 to take lessons with Ravel, the Frenchman made his pupil study Borodin’s music both to exorcise the Englishman’s Teutonic style and, as Vaughan Williams recalled, to show him ‘how to orchestrate in points of colour rather than in lines’.

To this end, Vaughan Williams was almost certainly introduced to Borodin’s Symphony No. 2 (composed 1869-76), a work much admired by Ravel and his colleagues: the chameleon-like orchestration of its Scherzo’s trio section, involving horns, woodwind and harp, prepared the way for Debussy’s Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune composed some 18 years later. Borodin forged this pointilistic style of instrumentation some ten years before Rimsky-Korsakov, usually credited as the Kuchka’s orchestral genius, composed his showpieces Sheherazade and Capriccio espagnol. In his autobiography Rimsky-Korsakov confessed that when he and Borodin first met, Borodin ‘was better informed than I on the practical side of orchestration, as he played the cello, oboe, and flute’.

That Borodin was ahead of his colleagues in terms of technique, even technical innovation, should not be so surprising. He was the oldest of the five composers associated with the Kuchka – about four years older than the group’s leader and teacher, Balakirev, and over ten years older than Rimsky-Korsakov – and he already had a considerable track record as a composer even before he met Balakirev in 1862. Yet Borodin modestly described himself as a ‘part-time’ musician, even one who was ‘always slightly ashamed to admit that I compose’. By day he was a research chemist
of international repute (firmly earning his place in modern science for his discovery of
the Aldol Reaction), and unlike either
Rimsky-Korsakov or Musorgsky he never
gave up his day job for the sake of music. Therefore most of his time had to be devoted to lecturing and to scientific research.

Borodin’s modesty and lack of pretension about his compositional ability, combined with his amiable and largely accessible music, has misled many listeners and even scholars into thinking he was little more than an inspired tunesmith, albeit of considerable orchestral ability – witness his perennially popular ‘Polovtsian Dances’ from Prince Igor. But the more one explores Borodin’s music, the more it is clear that his modesty was neither just nor false, but that of a man sufficiently advanced in compositional technique to be aware of his limitations, in contrast to his often blissfully unaware colleagues. It was typical of Borodin to see no shame in creating elaborate piano accompaniments, or variations, to play in duet with a child only able to play ‘Chopsticks’ – much to the horror of the serious-minded Balakirev. Yet, unlike Rimsky-Korsakov, he embarked on his First Symphony with a good working knowledge of harmony and counterpoint, and (also unlike Rimsky) had little reason to later disown the result, particularly as no less a composer than Liszt expressed unreserved admiration for the work. Borodin first met the great man in Weimar in 1877, and when he told Liszt that he had been criticised for excessive use of modulation in the Symphony, the Hungarian replied: ‘Do not touch it, alter nothing. Your modulations are neither extravagant nor faulty.’ As Borodin related by letter to his wife, Liszt went so far as to suggest that his ‘vital’ music was an example to set before contemporary German composers who wrote nothing but ‘insipid’ music. All this even before Liszt had been introduced to Borodin’s songs and his Second Symphony!

All the more remarkable, then, that apart from some flute and piano lessons Borodin was almost entirely self-taught. He had largely picked up his compositional craft from playing the cello (self-taught) in various chamber groups. In the years when his widowed mother was involved with a retired German teacher, the teenage Borodin had met several German students who took their Kultur and music quite seriously; Borodin would spend hours with his friends playing through string trios, quartets and other chamber works by composers such as Haydn, Mendelssohn and Spohr. It seems that Borodin’s insatiable curiosity led him to pursue his musical interests in the same way that he taught himself chemistry, electrotype experiments, modelling, and painting in water colours using home-made pigments. It was not enough to play the music – he wanted a practical understanding of how it ‘worked’.

By the time he met Balakirev in 1862, he had composed at least two dozen works, half of them for chamber ensembles which all demonstrate his idiomatic grasp of writing for stringed instruments, a strong sense of formal structure and a harmonic fluency born from familiarity with Mendelssohn and Spohr’s music. Yet they show little sign of the ‘voice’ which has made Borodin’s music well loved.

So how did Balakirev and the Kuchka help Borodin to find that ‘voice’? In 1859, just before Borodin travelled to Heidelberg to serve his apprenticeship as a chemist, he
had a crucial encounter not with Balakirev but Musorgsky. The two played Mendelssohn in duet at the piano, after which Musorgsky played him parts of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, followed by his own Scherzo composed under Balakirev’s tutelage. Borodin was intrigued both by Schumann’s ‘advanced’ harmonic style and
by the ‘oriental’ trio section of Musorgsky’s piece, both qualities evident in the E major piano Scherzo he composed in 1861 while
in Heidelberg. There he also met his future
wife, Ekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova.

An excellent pianist, Ekaterina persuaded Borodin of the beauty of Schumann’s music through her playing, and together they explored the music of Liszt and Wagner. With these musical avenues now opened, Borodin, spurred by Balakirev, embarked on his Symphony No. 1. Into the rich mix of new influences one may also hear Balakirev’s beloved Berlioz (in the Queen Mab-style Scherzo) and the rhythmic profile and rhetorical gestures of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. But Balakirev’s greatest lesson was to persuade Borodin to take himself seriously as a composer. This may seem a small step, but it proved the difference between an amateur composer who had taken delight in playing musical games, and one who relished the flavour of the music he was writing.

There followed a remarkable series of songs, including ‘The Sea Princess’ (1868) whose accompaniment is built on unresolved – therefore rule-breaking – yet attractive seconds and fourths. Even Liszt baulked at those dissonant seconds, thinking the song ‘too highly spiced’ like ‘Cayenne pepper’, yet its sonorous accompaniment was to be seized upon avidly by Debussy and his followers. Still, Liszt’s recognition of Borodin’s talent was a timely boost to his self-confidence and sense of well-being after the recent traumatic death of his beloved mother. Borodin afterwards revisited Heidelberg, and wrote to his wife movingly about how it stirred memories of their early courtship. All these experiences fed, it seems, into one of his greatest yet still underestimated works, the String Quartet No. 1. Any suspicion that Borodin was still writing music as relaxation from the more serious business of chemical research is exploded by the slow movement which strikes a new emotional depth, including a sudden expressive outburst; and there is a new mastery in the magical colours Borodin draws from the four string players in the Scherzo’s trio section. Furthermore, this was truly Borodin striking out on his own, since Balakirev frowned on such a bourgeois genre: on one level Borodin was revisiting his early love of chamber music, while at the same time exercising his now
fully matured musical voice as nurtured by Balakirev and the Kuchka.

It is one of the tragedies of music that Borodin sacrificed his gift for composition not so much at the altar of his day job, but simply through an increasingly exhausting lifestyle. Partly this was due to his hypochondriac wife, whose refusal to go to bed before three in the morning combined with his increasing need to get up early for work resulted in sleep deprivation. Then there was his inability to say ‘no’ to the numerous invitations to join committees and to raise funds for various causes. These, and his total commitment to his teaching duties – including the advanced medical course for women, established in 1872 but shut down in 1885 under the repressive regime of Alexander III – meant Borodin found little time for composing and for carrying out his own chemical research. Yet he managed to complete one more masterpiece – his String Quartet No. 2, which includes the celebrated ‘Notturno’ – and was working on his epic opera Prince Igor when, suffering from exhaustion and a heart weakened by a bout
of cholera, he collapsed at a fancy-dress party.

Despite Rimsky-Korsakov’s heroic attempt, with the assistance of his pupil Glazunov, to pull together a credible evening’s opera from the fragments and sketches for Prince Igor, it seems unlikely we can ever be sure of Borodin’s final intentions for that work. It fails to measure up to Borodin’s pointed comment when criticising the original scenario suggested by adviser Vladimir Stasov: ‘To me, opera without drama, in the strict sense, is unnatural.’ Magnificent though its several parts are, it seems hardly fair to identify the whole created by his posthumous editors as Borodin’s ‘masterpiece’ when there are wonderful and far more coherent works, such as the Symphony No. 2 and String Quartet No. 1, which the composer did leave complete. Let’s not patronise Borodin by underestimating his considerable craft and innovation, but recognise him at last as possibly the greatest genius of all the ‘Mighty Handful’. 

Daniel Jaffé

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