February 27, 2008

February 27 | Alexander Borodin

November 12, 1833 - February 27, 1887: Age 53

Alexander Borodin was a chemist, but also a musician and composer, one of "The Five" or "The Mighty Handful", top-notch composers dedicated to producing distinctively Russian art music in the 19th century (the other four were Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, and Balakirev).

As a chemist Borodin was quite famous and respected; his work took up much of his time and he composed as a hobby, for pleasure and companionship with fellow musicians. His musical output was small, but excellent: three symphonies, three string quartets, an opera (finished by Rimsky-Korsakov), and a handful of piano music, songs, and other bits and pieces.

There are some famous tunes in Polovetsian Dances, scored for the opera Prince Igor. That's because Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted Borodin's works for the musical Kismet. Borodin is credited as the main composer and even got a Tony Award for this show in 1954, more than 60 years after his death. Ironically when Kismet premiered in 1953 there was a newspaper strike which allowed it to become a hit by word of mouth; when the papers reappeared the reviews were bad and might have caused the show to flop. One critic panned the show as "a lot of borrowed din". Someone should have written a bad review of his pun.

In 1887 he had already had heart trouble, as well as a bout with cholera. He attended a fancy dress ball wearing a nationalist costume — a red shirt and high boots — and joined in the dancing with vigour and high spirits. At midnight, he fell back, and died within a few seconds of heart failure.

Do listen to the lovely recording of the first movement of his string quartet No. 2, played by the quartet of the La Scala orchestra. It's been filmed very well, with (gratifyingly to me as a string player) care in the editing to ensure that cutaways to the musician's hands and arms match what is actually being played. Once you watch this all kinds of related links come up with other groups performing movements from same piece; all disappointingly bad, unfortunately. But for some good fun, check out the Polovetsian Dances in the excerpt of the 1969 movie Prince Igor on YouTube... Listen for, and enjoy, the tune used for "Stranger in Paradise".

Sources: Wikipedia, Biography of classical composer Alexander Borodin

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