Monday 11 December 2017

Classical: A man of melody with a legacy ­beyond music

Magic formula: Chemist and composer Aleksandr Borodin.
Magic formula: Chemist and composer Aleksandr Borodin.

George Hamilton

Aleksandr Borodin was what you might call a gentleman composer. He was a scientist, and music was what he did for fun. Not that it made him any less serious about it. The evidence is there in a number of popular pieces, from the vast sweep of his immaculate symphonic poem In the Steppes of Central Asia to the more intimate expression of artistic perfection in his String Quartets. And his only opera, Prince Igor, supplied the melody that was turned into Stranger in Paradise which would become one of Tony Bennett's signature songs.

Borodin was born in St Petersburg in Russia in 1833. His father was Luka Stepanovich Gedevanishvili, a Georgian prince, who had an affair with his mother, the much younger wife of an army doctor.

As was the way of things at the time, the child was registered as the son of one of the father's staff, in this case his valet Porfiry Borodin. So Aleksandr Porfiryevich Borodin would be the boy's name.

But of course, as this was Imperial Russia, being part of Prince Luka's staff was the same as being his serf, so as Porfiry's legitimate son, Aleksandr was his biological father's serf as well.

At the age of seven, the Prince freed him from his obligations, and looked after his education. Though close to his mother, Aleksandr never recognised her as such, and referred to her as his aunt.

He was bright, excelling at languages and music - he'd written a little polka by the time he was 10 - but his real fascination was with the sciences.

He specialised in chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy - the elite Russian institution of the time - earning a doctorate, and going on to qualify as a medical doctor as well, though he never practised. Apparently he couldn't stand the sight of blood!

After some years working abroad, he came back to St Petersburg to become Professor of Chemistry at his alma mater. He was busy with his music as well, and had become part of the group known as The Mighty Five, which included Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov as well, who were forging a new path for Russian composition that would be free of the influences of Western Europe.

Borodin's First Symphony dates from this time, though it's significant, given the demands of his day job, that it took him five years to complete it.

Prince Igor, the opera that's considered his masterpiece, was almost 20 years in the making, and still wasn't finished when he dropped dead at a fancy dress ball at the age of just 53.

Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov saw to it that the work was completed, as they did with his Third Symphony, both parts of a highly regarded musical legacy that's strong on melody and lush lyricism. Borodin made a significant mark too in his chosen fields of science and medicine. His research in organic chemistry led to the discovery of the aldol reaction, a process that's prominent in industry from pharmaceuticals to plastics.

He was also a fervent campaigner for women's rights, a radical position to adopt in the second half of the 19th century. With the Academy restricted to male students, he was the first to offer courses in medicine to women in the Women's Medical School he helped found in St Petersburg,

For such a high achiever in his professional life, it's ironic that he's most remembered now for the beautiful music that was the product of his downtime, when he'd get away from the lab and the lecture hall and simply relax.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am.

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