Aleksandr Borodin Biography

Alexander Borodin was a multi-talented individual, known for his contributions as a music composer, doctor, chemist, and philanthropist. While studying chemistry, he developed a passion for chamber music and went on to compose numerous symphonies, with “Prince Igor” being hailed as his masterpiece. It was through the support of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt that Borodin gained recognition beyond the borders of the Russian Empire. His compositions were characterized by their strong lyrical quality and rich musical harmony. Borodin formed a close bond with Mily Balakirev, a champion of Russian nationalistic music, and drew inspiration from his works. As a member of the renowned group of composers called ‘The Five,’ Borodin aimed to create a distinct style of Russian art music. In addition to his musical pursuits, Borodin made significant contributions to the field of organic chemistry, particularly with his discovery of the Aldol-reaction/condensation. He published several scientific papers and even shared his ideas on identifying urea in animal urine. Furthermore, his philanthropic endeavors included the establishment of the St. Petersburg Medical School for Women, solidifying his reputation as a great benefactor.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 53
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Ekaterina Sergeyevna Protopopova
    • Father: Luka Gedevanishvili
    • Mother: Evdokia Konstantinovna Antonova
    • Children: Liza Balaneva (adopted)
  • Chemists
  • Organic Chemists
  • Died on: February 27, 1887
  • Place of death: Saint Petersburg
  • More Facts:
    • Awards: 1954 – Tony Award

Childhood & Early Life

Born as Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin, he was the illegitimate son of the Georgian Prince Luka Gedevanishvili. His mother was Evdokia Konstantinova Antonova while Porfiry Borodin, the servant of the Georgian Prince, was Borodin’s registered father.

Borodin was fluent in many languages such as Russian, French, English, Italian and German. He studied medicine from 1850 to 1856 at the St. Petersburg Medical-Surgical Academy and obtained his honors degree.

He obtained a doctorate in organic chemistry and the subject of his thesis was “On the analogy of arsenic acid with phosphoric acid in chemical and toxicological behavior”. He carried on research work about benzene derivatives in the laboratory of Emil Erlenmeye,. Later, he conducted advanced research on aldehydes. The chemistry of mineral waters and their medicinal benefits were also the topics of his research.

During his stay in Western Europe from 1859 to 1863, he studied medicine and chemistry. In 1862, his experiment about the first nucleophilic displacement of chlorine by fluorine in benzoyl chloride was published.

He worked as a surgeon in a military hospital for one year. He also pursued an advanced scientific study in Western Europe for three years. At the same time, he attended the concerts of Franz Liszt.


In 1862, he came back to St. Petersburg and taught Chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. There, he worked on self-condensation of small aldehydes. At the same time, he pursued music as a hobby and played the piano.

The first symphony he composed was in 1862, under the guidance of Mily Balakirev. In 1864, he published his papers of experimental work on self-condensation of small aldehydes.

He started composing his “Symphony No. 2” in 1869. Simultaneously, he remained busy in scientific research and delivery of lectures.

His interest in the field of organic chemistry led him to discover the ‘Aldol-reaction/condensation’ in 1872. In the same year, he set up medical courses for women. The same year, he declared about the discovery of a new by-product in aldehyde reaction with alcohol-like properties to the Russian Chemical Society.

In his last article on reactions of amides that he published in 1875, he discussed about a method of the identification of urea in animal urine. In 1877, for the first time, he performed his “Symphony No. 1” outside of Russia.

Major Works

He composed “In the Steppes of Central Asia”, a symphonic poem, in 1880. This orchestral work represents an interaction of Russians and Asians in the steppe lands of the Caucasus.

His “Prince Igor” is an opera in four acts along with a prologue. Considered as his masterpiece, it includes “Polevetsian Dances”. Based on the incident of Polovtsinas’ invasion of Southern Russia in the 12th century, this opera tells the story of the capture of Prince Igor.

He composed “String Quartet No. 2”, a work in four movements in 1881. One can notice a perfect amalgamation of harmony of four musical instruments. One of its movements “Nocturne” is truly praiseworthy for its lyrical quality.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1863, he married Ekaterina Protopova, who was a Russian pianist. They adopted a child namely Liza Balaneva. After suffering from cholera and several minor heart attacks, he passed away suddenly.

His work “Prince Igor” was completed posthumously by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. “The Borodin Quartet”, a string quartet, is named in his honor. The name “Alexander Borodin” was used as a fictional character by the chemist Alexander Shulgin in his books “PiHKAL” and “TiHKAL”.


Robert Wright and George Forrest used the musical composition of this great musician in their musical “Kismet” in 1953. Due to the success of this musical, this music maestro received a Tony award posthumously in 1954.

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