BERLIOZ AND BORODIN
Rudolf J. Noer, M.D.
Music and medicine have enjoyed a remarkable affinity through the years. As Apollo was the god of both medicine and music, so too have many famous physicians turned to music for relaxation and spiritual relief. The long friendship between the great surgeon Billroth and the composer Brahms was the subject of a paper before this Society not long ago. Many of you have heard of physicians’ orchestras in New York, Chicago, Akron, Los Angeles and elsewhere. There is said to have been a very excellent physicians’ symphony in Berlin. Chamber music in particular had provided physicians with and intellectual hobby. Joseph Roisman, the first violinist of the Budapest Quartet once asked me why physicians interested in music turned so often to the string quartet, remarking that he numbered among his acquaintances physicians from one end of the country to the other, all of them amateur quartet players. From the days of Saint Luke and of Paracelsus and through the years, William Withering, Edward Jenner, Herman Boerhaave, Auenbrugger, von Helmholtz, Metchinkoff, to the more recent times of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Fielding Garrison, Rudolph Schindler, Bela Schick and many others have been numbered among those concerned with medicine or other scientific endeavors, who have nevertheless found time to become proficient in musical performance to the point of serious enjoyment in ensemble playing. The story is told that Albert Einstein, the great mathematician, during a quartet session when things were not going well, suddenly heard one of his musical colleagues call sing out loudly, “Damn it, Einstein, can’t you count”.
Some years ago, a most interesting little volume entitled “Musical Sons of Aesculapius” was written by Willard Marmelszadt. In reading this most interesting little volume, I was struck by the chapter dealing with two physician-musicians of the nineteenth century, and it occurred to me that the very different but in some respects similar careers of Hector Berlioz and Aleksandr Porfirevich Borodin might form an interesting subject for one of the evenings with the Innominate Society. Both of these men were in a sense amateurs throughout their lives in the truest sense of the word; those who love. Both studied medicine. One deserted it an early age for a career in music, hectic but productive. The other remained in medicine and particularly chemistry throughout his life but never forsook music, becoming ultimately as well known through his compositions as for his scientific contributions. Neither was truly well prepared for musical composition, at least in the traditional sense, yet both mastered the art to the point where their contributions produced lasting effects upon musical attitudes and subsequent development.
Louis Hector Berlioz was born the 11th of December 1803, at La Cote St. Andre, a small town in France, situated between Vienne, Grenoble, and Lyon. His own memoirs describe the birthplace as built “on the slope of a hill, overlooking a rich golden fertile plain, the silence of which has an unspeakable dreamy majesty intensified by the chain of mountains bounding it one the east and west. Behind these again rise in the distance the gigantic snow-capped peaks of the Alps.” His father was a doctor of medicine whom Berlioz says “inspired great confidence both in our own and in the neighboring towns. He was keenly sensitive to the responsibilities of his profession and believed that in the practice of so dangerous and difficult an art as medicine it behooved him to devote every spare moment to mastering it since the life of his fellow creatures was dependent on his skill. He was a credit to his profession, which he regarded more as an opportunity for doing good to the poor than as a means of emolument to himself.” His mother was deeply religious and devoted to him. His childhood was apparently a peaceful and secure one and biographers have pointed out that it was not such as to fit him for the many conflicts and struggles of his later life. His first encounter with music occurred at the time of his First Communion when the choir burst forth into the Eucharistic hymn. He says, “at the sound of those virginal voices I was overwhelmed with a sudden rush of mystic passionate emotion. A new world of love and feeling was revealed to me, more glorious by far than the heaven of which I had heard so much and strange proof of the power of true expression and the magical influence of real feeling. I found out ten years afterwards that the melody which had been so naively adapted to sacred words and introduced into a religious ceremony was Nina’s song.” During his boyhood his father imparted to him a taste for the classics and he was forced to learn a few lines of Horace and Virgil by heart each day. At the age of twelve, he met the first of his several unsuccessful romances. Estell, “a tall, slight girl of 18 with splendid shining eyes and mass of hair which might have waved in the casque of Achilles” and “clad in a pair of pink shoes” made a lasting impression upon him, which led him in his old age, after the death of his two wives, to again look upon his sweetheart, now Madame Fornier.
Berlioz’ father insisted that he was destined for the study of medicine. He found a flageolet hidden away in a drawer and annoyed his father with his “tiresome tooting” to the point where he was taught to play the instrument properly. He later mastered the flute and guitar, but interestingly enough, never learned to play the piano. Of this he has the following to say, “My father did not wish me to learn the piano. Otherwise I should doubtless have swelled the ranks of the innumerable army of famous pianists. He had no intention of making an artist of me; and I daresay he thought that if I learned the piano I should devote myself too passionately to it and become more absorbed in music than he wished or intended me to be. I have often felt the want of this accomplishment and it might have been of the greatest use to me; but when I consider the appalling number of miserable musical platitudes to which the piano has given birth, which would never have seen the light had their authors been confined to pen and paper, I feel grateful to the happy chance which forced me to compose freely and in silence and has thus delivered me from the tyranny of the fingers, so dangerous to thought and from the fascination which the ordinary sonorities always exercise on a composer, more or less. Many amateurs have pitied me for this deprivation, but that does not affect me much.” He states that “my father intended me to follow his profession which he considered the finest in the world and had told me so long before. I had often expressed my contrary views on the subject most emphatically and he thoroughly disapproved of them. I had as yet no very definite ideas; but I felt a strong presentiment that I was not intended to spend my life at the bedsides of sick people in hospitals or in dissecting rooms and was firmly determined to resist all attempts to make a doctor of me.”
“One day my father suddenly determined to use my love of music as a lever for removing what he called a ‘childish aversion’ and by one master stroke to embark me at once on the study of medicine…He spread out in his study Monroe’s enormous treatise on osteology with life-size illustrations of the structure of the body. ‘This is the work you are to study’, he said to me. ‘I do not suppose you will persist in your prejudice against medicine for it is unreasonable and fully unfounded and if you promise to work earnestly at osteology I will get you a splendid flute, with the new keys, from Lyon.’ Berlioz continues, “I had long coveted such an instrument and what could I say…I stammered out a faint ‘yes’, went into my room and threw myself on my bed, overwhelmed with grief. Become a doctor! Study anatomy! Dissect! Witness horrible operations! Instead of throwing myself heart and soul into the glorious and beautiful art of music! Forsake the imperium for the dreary realities of earth! The immortal angels of poetry and love and their inspired songs for filthy hospitals, dreadful medical students, hideous corpses, the shrieks of the patients, and groans and death rattle of the dying! It seemed to me the utter reversal of the natural conditions of my life; horrible and impossible. Yet it came to pass.
He began his osteologic studies in company with a cousin, Robert, who played the violin well. Together they played in quintets, so that they spent more time at music than anatomy. This produced rebukes from his father, but partly by his own efforts and partly by coercion, he finally learned all his father could teach him and, at nineteen, he decided to go to Paris and enter upon his medical studies in earnest. Upon his arrival in Paris, he rejoined his cousin who informed him that he had bought a subject (“a corpse”) and invited him to accompany him to the dissecting room at the Hospital de la Pitie. “When I entered that fearful human charnel house, littered with fragments of limbs and saw the ghastly faces and cloven hands, the bloody cesspool in which we stood with its reeking atmosphere, the swarms of sparrows fighting for scraps and the rats in the corners gnawing bleeding vertebrae, such a feeling of horror possessed me that I leapt out of the window and fled home as though death and all of his hideous crew were at my heels. It was twenty-four hours before I recovered from the shock of this first impression, utterly refusing to hear the words anatomy, dissection or medicine and firmly resolved to die rather that enter the career which had been forced upon me.”
Robert wasted much eloquence upon him, but finally induced him to make another effort and he returned to the hospital and the same scene. At this point he says, “I now merely felt cold disgust at the sight of the same things which had before filled me with such horror; I had become as calloused to the revolting scene as a veteran soldier. It was all over. I even found some pleasure in rummaging in the gaping breast of an unfortunate corpse for the lungs with which to feed the winged inhabitants of that charming place.” He continued his studies and apparently found those in chemistry and physics of considerable interest and was particularly captivated by a course in literature. He says, “I was thus in a fair way to swell the ranks of the medical students and might have added another name to the long list of bad doctors but for a visit I paid to the Opera.” He was completely captivated by this performance which strengthened anew his determination to stay with music. He states that “I vowed as I left the opera that I would be a musician, come what might, despite father, mother, uncles, aunts, grandparents and friends. Thenceforth his studies alternated between music and medicine, but from a sense of duty and filial obligation, he continued to be sufficiently attentive to his duties at the medical school so that he received the degree of Bachelor of Science in January of 1824. At the point he completely abandoned medicine for music.
He studied composition with Gerono, a pupil of Lesueur, the master under whom he himself later studied, and he began composition in earnest. Time does not permit a detailed account of his further life, filled with frustration and disappointment, but always pervaded by an intense love of music. His father refused to continue his support and he was forced to undertake various types of musical employment, often quite distasteful, as in a theatre orchestra, but from which he eked out a bare living. He had a tumultuous spirit and a restlessness which kept him constantly on the move. He made many efforts to wine the Prix de Rome, failing the first three attempts, only to have the fourth competition called off. Finally, at his fifth try he did win the coveted prize in 1830. The account of his journey to Italy and of his experiences there form one of the most interesting parts of his very readable memoirs. About this time he fell in love with the famous actress, Harriet Smithson, when watching her in a Shakespearean performance and, after several years of unsuccessful courtship he won her hand in marriage. It apparently was not an entirely congenial life they lived together, but they were happy with the birth of their son in August 1834. In 1841 he met the singer Marie Recio, with whom he developed a lasting liaison. He separated from his wife and sometime later, the day after her death in 1854, he married Madam Recio. His second wife died in 1862 and remained lonely for the remainder of his life. In 1864, he made a pathetic attempt to revive a youthful romance by seeking out the Estell whom he had loved as a boy, now Madame Fornier living at Lyons after the death of her husband. She discouraged his efforts to revive a romance, which had always been largely one-sided. His letters to her are pathetic in their loneliness, her replies models of mature yet understanding counsel.
Berlioz, the musician, will doubtless always be a source of controversial opinion. Comments of his contemporaries are illuminating. Sir Charles Halle, a well known pianist and conductor of the Manchester-Halle concerts, says of him:” There never lived a musician who adored his art more than Berlioz; he was indeed enthusiasm personified. He was the most perfect conductor that I ever set eyes upon, one who held absolute sway over his troops and played upon them as a pianist upon a keyboard.” The great Richard Wagner, hearing his symphony Romeo and Juliet, commented, “At first the grandeur and masterly execution of the orchestral part almost overwhelmed me. It was beyond anything I could have conceived. The fantastic daring, the sharp precision with which the boldest combinations—almost tangible in their clearness—impressed me, drove back my own ideas of the poetry of music with brutal violence into the very depth of my soul. I was simply all ears for things of which, till then, I had never dreamed and which I felt I must try to realize.”
Acknowledged to be a master of instrumentation, it is interesting that Berlioz found favor with the public only relatively late in life and that only a few of his compositions are heard today. His medical career, excessively brief, extended only to his bachelor’s degree and was followed to please his father, having been initiated on the promise of a much-desired flute. His place in the history of music is assured and he is acknowledged to be one who exerted a great influence upon the music of the subsequent century. His admirers point to his power and originality and his brilliant orchestration where his genius is undisputed and to the enlargement of his descriptive and dramatic scope of symphonic music. His detractors stress his technical crudeness and structural weaknesses, his lapses into vulgarity and bad taste and his uncontrolled emotionalism, which sometimes reached the point of exhibitionism. His early interest in the operatic stage and his constant frustration in his attempts to have operas performed led him to develop the “narrative symphony” (the Fantastique), the “dramatic symphony” (Romeo and Juliet) and the “opera de concerte” (La Damnation de Faust) which Gilbert Chase, in the International Encyclopedia, calls his most significant and successful creation. He was regarded as the culmination of musical remonticism in France, but concludes Chase, “for him the times in which he lived were out of joint; and Berlioz as an artist never achieved full inward harmony. Perhaps the true tragedy of his career is that he dissipated his best inspiration in a period of romantic extravagance and, by the time he achieved serene classical utterance, his inspiration had waned. Viewed in this light we can understand Ernest Newman’s description of him as ‘a pathetic monument of incompleteness—but a monument not without grandeur even in its incompleteness. His best known works are the Symphony Fantastique, the Roman Carnival Overture, Harald in Italy, a symphony with Viola Obligato, written for and at the request of the great violinist, Paganini, for performance on a rare Stradivarius viola which the latter had obtained, the dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet, and the oratorio “L’enfance du Christ”.
Aleksandr Porfyrevich Borodin, like Berlioz, was an innovator, an explorer of new paths in music, but his approach to life and to his professions were utterly different. He uniquely and successfully combined careers in music and in science. Borodin was born on October 31/ November 12, 1833 in Saint Petersburg, that Russian city so often renamed and know known as Leningrad. He was the illegitimate child (in several biographies called the “natural son”) of Prince Luka Semenovich Gedeanov (Ghedeanishvili) and Evdokia Konstantinovna, nee Antonora. His father was a descendant of the last kings of Imeretia in the Caucasus “where the flora of the east blossoms in the shadow of the eternal snow”. The family traced its lineage back to King David, incorporated his harp and sling into their coat of arms. He was in his sixties when he fell in love with the charm, intelligence and with of the 25-year-old Dunia from Nerva. Three sons were born to them out of wedlock and all were registered under the names of serfs following what is said to have been a rather frequent custom in those days.
Aleksandr is said to have inherited from his father somewhat of an oriental appearance, with dark deep eyes that looked, as someone said, “like the round flat surface of a filled glass”. It has also been said that he owed to his Georgian ancestors an oriental quality of sleepiness in his manner. The Prince died after but a few years, so that young Aleksandr was left to the care of his mother alone. She was an intelligent and cultured woman, comfortably situated financially, and she brought him up with loving solicitude. His first years were spent under completely feminine influences, that of his mother, his governess and a cousin Mary, who was his first playmate.
He was thought to be delicate in health and was therefore not sent to public school, being taught at home by governesses and tutors. He was anxious to learn, and soon became proficient in English, French and German and somewhat later in Italian as well. His first exposure to music appears to have been at the hands of military bands and it is said that he used to embrace every opportunity to get acquainted with the players, to examine their instruments and ask how they were played. He had a childish love affair with a grown woman, Helen by name, for whom he composed a polka when he was only nine. This piece, preserved in manuscript, is said to be “far more striking for its originality than for its childishness”, in certain aspects suggesting Glinka’s music and in other ways foreshadowing the more mature Borodin. After this, arrangements were made for him to be taught the flute by a member of a military band. During his lessons “the old prince laid aside the Bible and closed his ears with his fingers.” Sometime later he began studying the piano in company with a playmate with whom he often played piano duets.
After his father’s death the family moved to a new apartment close to the Academy of Medicine where she had decided he should enter upon a medical career. It is said that his mother encouraged his friendship with German students who “were orderly, did not drink nor discuss politics and behaved themselves.” One biographer adds, “she even selected, according to her own taste, a young servant girl, Anushka, to live in their house so as to spare the growing boy the storms of young passion.”
Aleksandr developed an early interest in books on botany and chemistry and developed his own laboratories at home. It is said that the house constantly smelled of sulfur and was filled with containers of liquids with which Aleksandr carried out his experiments. His mother wished him to be a well-educated man and encouraged these chemical experiments though they sometimes endangered the very safety of the house. Aleksandr was twelve years old when music began to take as large a part in his daily routine as did his experiments with chemistry. It is said that his interest was stimulated by a boy of his own age, Schtchigleff, who was somewhat of a boy prodigy. Their association is said to have begun in a fist-fight, but ultimately developed into a harmonious mutual study of music, in the beginning concentrating on lessons on the piano, sandwiched between their lessons in chemistry. They played duets arranged from the symphonies of Haydn and Beethoven and, to develop more variety in performance, Borodin studied the cello and the flute while Schtchigleff learned to play the violin. They went to concerts together and, through the winter slush and snow, carried their instruments from one end of the city to the other to play chamber music.
With the background of his interest in chemistry and his home laboratory where he had carried on many experiments and manufactured fireworks he revealed a steady increase of interest in the natural sciences, and in 1850 he matriculated at the Academy of Medicine and Surgery. Here he came under the lasting influence of the eminent chemist, Nicolai Nikolayvich Zinin. Prophetic of he mature careers is the fact that despite his assiduous attention to his studies of botany and chemistry he likewise continued the study of music, to the point where Zinin is reported to have said to him “Please don’t think so much of ballads when here I am bringing in your future and trying to train you to succeed me. You can’t hunt two rabbits at the same time.” Heeding this advice, he is said to have redoubled his efforts in the study of medicine and particularly of chemistry to the point where Zinin, recognizing Borodin’s natural ability, ultimately came to regard him almost as an adopted son. Though some of his professors were fearful that his musical activities might hinder success in his chosen profession, he was appointed surgeon to an army hospital in 1856. In 1867 he attended a medical congress in Brussels, where he was ultimately to score his first success outside of Russia, as a composer. He is said to have continued composing throughout his student days at the Academy. Two years later, at the age of twenty-four, he received the degree of Doctor of Medicine. His service as a house officer in a military hospital caused him much distress through having to care for serfs who had been cruelly mauled by floggings. He practiced for a brief period, then returned to his Alma Mater as a professor of Chemistry.
Shortly thereafter, with Mendeleeff and several other Russian scientists, he was sent to Europe to study chemistry under some of the eminent masters of the science. The situation he encountered was well described by Gutman in the Journal of Chemical Education: “Borodin entered upon his post-graduate studies at a time when many of the chemical doctrines which he had been taught to accept were being supplanted by newer theories. Thus, Kekule’s views on valence were rapidly taking the place of the then familiar type theory, while Cannizzaro was making his eloquent plea for the universal acceptance of Avogadro’s hypothesis as a basis for a rational system of both atomic and molecular weights. Borodin and his Russian companions made their way to Heidelberg, where Bunsen and Kirchoff were then perfecting their spectroscope; where Roscoe, under Bunsen’s direction, was carrying out his pioneer work in the realm of photochemistry; and where Kekule and Erlenmeyer were conducting brilliant investigations in organic chemistry. Among the young men enrolled at Heidelberg at this time, who were destined to become eminent chemists, may be mentioned Baeyer, Volhard, Lothar Meyer, Beilstein and Qunicke. With this interesting group of scientific students the young Russians were privileged to associate. Mendeleeff, with characteristic eccentricity, did not work in the university laboratory, but established a small private laboratory of his own where he occupied himself with the determination of physician constants of different chemical compounds, apparently securing data upon which to base certain of the striking predictions he was later to make in connection with his enunciation of the periodic law. Borodin pursued the study of organic chemistry under Kekule and Erlenmeyer, presumably according to Zinin’s advice. He remained in Europe for three years, the greater part of which were spent in Heidelberg.”
Borodin’s stay in Heidelberg was apparently a very happy one, stimulated by the above-mentioned assemblage of pioneers in the field of chemistry but also filled with pleasant association with friends and acquaintances. He made many excursions into the country and several of his biographies tell the story of how he and a companion who used to travel with minimal luggage were searched by a group of police on the trail of a criminal whom they suspected might be Borodin. Finally convinced that these were but students on a vacation, they were released. After the train crossed the border, it developed that the criminal had actually been in the group but had escaped attention because of their concentration upon Borodin. He spent a summer in Italy and Switzerland during this period and paid a short visit to Paris before returning to Heidelberg. This journey afforded him many new musical experiences and was particularly noteworthy in that he met about this time the girl who was to become his wife. Her name was Catherine, or more properly, Katerina Sergeyevna Protopopova. She is said to have been a good musician, an accomplished pianist who helped Borodin complete his musical education and awakened his musical genius or at least challenged his artistic ambition. She had come to Heidelberg for rest and recuperation with the proceeds from a recital given in Moscow, and lived in the same boarding house with Borodin at Heidelberg where she played for him music by Chopin and Schumann, neither of which were familiar to him, but who impressed him greatly. Their friendship grew into deep genuine love, their love enduring, in all its freshness. They had many tastes and inclinations in common and understood each other well.
Borodin returned to Russia in 1862 as assistant professor of organic chemistry, and the following year he was admitted as a lecturer to the Petersburg Institute of Forestry. In 1864 he was made a full professor in the Academy of Medicine which post he retained for the rest of his life. He was said to have made a second visit to Germany some thirteen years later with a view to studying their laboratories in the hope of reorganizing his own and to continue his investigations in organic chemistry. He went there a third time in 1881 and in 1885 and in 1886 went twice to Belgium.
The following excerpts from the diary of a student at the Medical Academy in Saint Petersburg gives an interesting description of Borodin. “One day a young man nonchalantly entered Zinin’s private office and soon the report was circulated in the laboratory that this was Borodin of whom we had heard much and whose return from abroad we had been expecting for some time. While Zinin was friendly with all his pupils, for Borodin he evinced a regard which was almost paternal and with him he shared his views on all current scientific topics. Borodin spent whole days in the laboratory with his students and was never too busy to answer any questions which they might wish to ask relative to their work. We could always approach him and discuss our problems with him without fear of being repulsed or receiving evasive replies. He was a man of very even temper and his uniform consideration and kindliness of manner won our admiration and affection. The only signs of impatience which he ever exhibited were provoked by our negligence or lack of care. ‘Little father’, he would say. ‘if you continue to work in that manner it will not be long before you will destroy our fine collection of apparatus.’ Or at another time he would exclaim, ‘How can you produce such foul orders in this beautiful laboratory’ and thereupon would banish the offender to another room. His relations with his students did not cease at the threshold of the laboratory, for most of us were received into his house as friends and always took our meals there when we worked over hours. Borodin was ever on the lookout for positions for his students and it was proverbial that those requiring the services of trained chemists could not meet him without being solicited for places for his former pupils.”
Borodin’s home life was about as disorganized an existence as one could imagine. He deeply loved his wife and apparently they had an extremely happy relationship though he was constantly worried by her ill health. They had no children of their own but were constantly adopting and caring for others. He was fond of cats and apparently always had several in the home. His fondness for children is exemplified by his composition of a polka to harmonize with the playing of chopsticks by an adopted child. This polka led Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and Lyadof to join him in twenty-four variations and fourteen pieces for piano on a favorite theme (“Chopsticks Waltz”) which the great pianist Liszt found highly praiseworthy, despite the condemnatory comments of music critics in St. Petersburg. It should be noted here that Liszt befriended Borodin on many occasions and that the two enjoyed a very cordial relationship during the latter years of Borodin’s life.
The helter-skelter nature of Borodin’s home situation was very graphically described in Rimsky-Korsakov’s autobiography from which the following excerpts are quoted by Sunderman: “Of all my intimate musical friends, I visited Borodin the oftenest…His inconvenient apartment, so like a corridor, never allowed him to lock himself in or pretend he was not at home to anybody. Anybody entered his (apartment) at any time whatsoever and took him away from his dinner or his tea. Dear old Borodin would get up with his meal or his drink half-tasted, would listen to all kinds or requests and complaints and would promise “to look into it”…
(His wife) continually suffered from asthma, passed sleepless nights, and (did not get up until) 11 or 12 o’clock…(Aleksandr) had a difficult time with her at night), rose early, and got along with insufficient sleep. Their whole home life was one unending disorder…Their apartment was often used as a shelter or a night’s lodging by various poor (or ‘visiting’) relations, who picked that place to fall ill or even lose their minds. Borodin had his hands full of them, doctored them, took them to hospitals, and then visited them there. In the four rooms of his apartment there often slept several strange persons of this sort; sofas and floors were turned into beds. Frequently it proved impossible to play the piano because someone lay asleep in the adjoining room…”
Borodin was a man of very strong physique and health; a man of no whims and easy to get along with. He slept little, but could sleep on anything and anywhere. He could dine twice a day, or go dinnerless altogether, both of which happened frequently. Borodin would drop in on a friend during dinner; he would be invited to join the meal---“As I have already dined today and, consequently have formed the habit of dining, I might well dine once more”—Borodin would say and seat himself at the table. They would offer him wine—“As I don’t drink wine, as a rule, I might treat myself to it today”—he would reply. Next time it might be just the contrary.
Another interesting facet in Borodin’s life was his interest in the medical school for women. He is said to have been among the first to recognize the injustice done the women of Russia by withholding from them the educational and social privileges given to its men. He espoused university education for Russian woman and from 1872 to his death gave gratuitous instruction in chemistry at the Medical School for Women which had been established through the efforts of Professor Rudneyef and Madame Franooskaya. He once wrote to a friend…”There is much anxiety, unnecessary red tape, and bad financial arrangements. This leaves me little time for my beloved work. At home things are not going smoothly. My poor wife is always sick and this year is worse than last. The only thing that cheers me up is the Women’s College. It takes lots of time but gives me a moral satisfaction. On account of my work on all kinds of committees, etc. I have no time for my music. When I have time for physical relaxation I lack the peace of mind which is so indispensable for composing music.
During the ten years following his return from Europe, he carried out many important investigations, mostly in the field of organic chemistry. He discovered aldol almost simultaneously with Wurtz. His 1862 paper on the tendency exhibited by fluorides of the organic radicals has already been referred to. This work was shortly followed by another in which Borodin reports on the action of the zinc ethyl on chloro-iodoform. In the same year he published a note on the solubility of benzene in solutions of sodium ethylate. He then undertook the investigation of aldehydes, a field of research, which engaged his attention throughout the remainder of his life. He published some twenty-two chemical papers in French, Russian, German and Italian journals.
Time does not permit a detailed consideration of his many contributions which are summarized in detail by Getman in the Journal of Chemical Education. The latter concluded his discussion as follows: “It is to be deplored that the increasing demands upon the time and strength of this gifted man made by numerous commitments both within and without the University should have been allowed to interfere with his chemical research and his creative work in music. While the chemical investigations we have briefly outlined constitute a valuable contribution to the science, one cannot but wonder what might have been achieved had his life been spread and had he been relieved of the routine duties which a less gifted person could have performed equally well.”
Borodin’s contributions to music can only be appreciated in the light of the backgrounds of Russian music. Its beginnings go back to the 10th century when Prince Vladimar of Kiev brought Christianity to Russia. New churches grew in ever increasing numbers with every prince and every bishop struggling to surpass the others in the ritual and beauty of the choral singing. At the same time ecclesiastical attitudes regarded every popular amusement detrimental to religious meditation and spiritual development. Traveling theatrical groups and singers who accompanied themselves on instruments were “outlawed and cursed as scum and the disciples of the devil” in the next century. In 1636 the Moscow patriarch, Joseph, decreed all musical research pursuits in the home as unlawful and voted the confiscation of all musical instruments. Fifty wagons loaded with instruments gathered from the population and brought to the Moscow river resulted in the burning of these instruments in big bonfires and dumping them into the river all in the name of God. “At last peace will reign on all the lands of Russia”, noted the chronicle.
Secular music in Russia entered its second phase when Peter the Great made himself the virtual head of the Church and thus freed secular music from its yoke. He introduced military bands into Russia in imitation of the Germans and was also the first to establish a theatre with performances given by foreign actors. From then on, music was subjected to the political orientation of the Russian court. By the time of Catherine the Great wealthy noblemen and those close to the crown formed their own orchestras and theatres whose performances were even more splendid than those at the court. The great bulk of the population, however, had little to say regarding development of art in all areas, which was controlled by the upper classes. The latter still considered their own national music as “belonging to the stables and the barns of a mujik.”
Russia had no symphonic music of her own until the 19th century, but had a great abundance of folk songs in which she is said to have had no rival. “Name me the land that has more songs than Russia”, said Goegol. Every emotion was mirrored in their songs, from the White Sea to the shores of the Caspian and the foothills of Tibet, from the Polish border to the Siberian Taiga. They sang their songs solo, in chorus accompanied by musical instruments (one, several, or an entire orchestra); or a cappella. They sang as they went to war, exile or hard labor. They sang at ease in their home, on the road or at work. They sang of birth, marriage, death. With their songs they recorded the burgeoning, the fruition, harvest, quiescence.
Mihail Glinka first realized the wealth of material embodied in these folk songs and laid the cornerstones of Russian nationalist music. Mili Balakirev began the serious emphasis upon national music promoted so assiduously by the other members of the famous Five. This term is a free translation of the Russian Moguchaya Kuchka (the mighty little heap). Balakirev, Cui, Borodin, Rimski-Korsakov and Moussorgky together founded the new Russian national school at the beginning of the 60’s of the 19th century. It is said that the importance of their influence on music can be compared only to that of Richard Wagner. In a sense all of these five were musical amateurs, and some actually ungrounded in the principles of musical composition. Interestingly enough, all were intimately related to science. Balakirev was a mathematician, Cui an engineer, Rimski-Korsakov a former naval cadet, Moussorgsky a military officer and Borodin, as we have already seen, a physician and above all a chemist. To call it strange that a scientifically oriented group should contribute so much to the aesthetic field of music is to ignore the background of musical composition in some areas quite mathematical and in nearly all based upon principles which are indeed scientific in their ultimate analysis. This band of five, convinced of the place of Russian music in compositions, first brought about a truly Russian music relatively free of the importations from Germany, Italy and France which had hitherto dominated the music of that nation.
Borodin first met Moussorgsky while a house surgeon in the military hospital on the outskirts of the city, where Moussorgsky was an ensign of the guard. He met him again at the home of one of the assistant professors of the Academy and the two shared their musical interest thereafter. He met Balakirev during his first month back in Saint Petersburg after his stay in Europe at the home of Professor Bachten, his old friend from Heidelberg. Balakirev invited Borodin to one of his weekly gatherings and merely told his friends, “This is chemistry, this is medicine.” Borodin’s musical career is said to have begun with his meeting with Moussorgsky in 1862 and with Balakirev, after which Borodin seriously entered upon the study of harmony, counterpoint and other aspects of musical composition. The new Russian school of musical thought laid down the following principles: (1) Dramatic music should have an intrinsic value as absolute music; (2) Nothing should stand in the way of the True and the Beautiful; (3) The vocal music should match the meaning of the words; (4) Music as well as the libretto, i.e. the structure of the themes, should depend upon the individual character and function of each actor as well as the general sense of the piece.
Time does not permit further study of the development of Russian national music, in which Borodin was to play so great a part. Suffice it to say that his association with the Mighty Five crystallized his ambitions in musical composition, stimulated him to adequate background study under Balakirev and gave him the encouragement, which was necessary as stimulus to further serious musical composition.
His musical compositions were not numerous as would be expected, since he was primarily concerned with other fields. His first symphony took some five years to compose. The second, which is considered by many to be his masterpiece, was seven years in composition. Both of his string quartets, the first dedicated to Madame Rimsky-Korsakov and the second, more familiar to many, to his wife, were composed after the symphonies. The third symphony was never finished, two movements having been orchestrated by Glazunof. During his years in Heidelburg he produced several chamber music works, which were not finished or published. It is of considerable interest to us however, that among these was a sextet referred to in Cobett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (p. 148, vol. 1) as follows: “In 1860, during his stay at Heidelburg, Borodin wrote a string sextet which was publicly performed there. The manuscript which he presented to one of the Heidelburg musicians is lost. Later he described the work as very Mendelsohnian in character and written to please the Germans”. Dr. F. William Sunderman, the well-known Philadelphia pathologist who is a very competent amateur violinist, devoted to chamber music, and a biographer of Borodin, is said to have been looking through some old music in one of the shops in Moscow in September of 1951 when, to his surprise, he came across Borodin’s sextet. It is said that Sunderman purchased this and is now able to provide his many chamber music friends with the thrill of reading the long lost composition.”
His only opera, Prince Igor, occupied some 20 years of his life. He worked at this intermittently, with many excuses for procrastination and many promises to his friends, particularly among “The Five” who urged him to get on with it, yet it was still unfinished at the time of his death. It is said the when Vladimar Vasilyevich Stasov came to announce Borodin’s death to Rimsky-Korsakov very early in the morning of February 16/28, 1887, both proceeded at once to Borodin’s apartment to secure the manuscript of Prince Igor. Happily, Borodin had often discussed this with his friends and the gaps were filled in from memory by Glazunof, who remembered many parts which the composer had often played for him on the piano. The orchestration was largely added by Rimsky-Korsakov. All of his music has a highly national characteristic and despite the fact that he was a musical amateur, he is now recognized to have been a master of orchestration, noteworthy for the originality of his compositions and for the new directions, which his music took. His total musical output included two symphonies, as well known poem, “In the Steppes of Central Asia”, an orchestral scherzo, part of a third symphony, two quartets and a sextet, two operas, several smaller pieces for piano and a number of songs.
Calvocoressi, one of several biographers, considers the validity of applying the term “amateur” to Borodin. He says: “The epithet is true so far as it means that he did not take up music as a profession, devote the whole of his time to it or expect any advantage, financial or other from it. But no evidence of amateurishness could be found in the music of his maturity. There is no need to prove the point by a discussion of technicalities. It is enough to ask with Khubof whether a “merely amateur could have written the first Russian national works to be of national reputation”. Borodin himself fortunately was allowed to see the coming of a recognition whose significance was unmistakable. But a few months before his death he wrote to his old friend, Gavrushkevich: “”I have been fairly fortunate as a composer, especially abroad. My symphonies have enjoyed unexpected successes, the first establishing my reputation in several countries, the second, mainly in Belgium. My “Steppes” have made the round of Europe. My first quartet pleased not only many European audiences, but also American. During the past season it was played four times at the Buffalo Philharmonic Concerts. My songs, too, are going well…but ware the evil eye!” Calvocoressi concludes, “Since then nearly half a century has elapsed and Borodin’s music has proved its artistic value by continued progress, its seminal value by exercising widespread and beneficial influence on many a composer, and not in Russia only. So the question whether he was an amateur is of purely academic, not critical, aesthetical, or even practical interest. The only critical and practical conclusion is that if Borodin (and the same is to be said of Moussorgsky) was an amateur, then the musical world could do with many more amateurs of the same kind.”
Many attempts have been made to explain Borodin’s preference for keeping music only a secondary vocation. Borodin himself said he was a “Sunday musician”. He once wrote to a friend, “When I am so ill that I must stay at home and can do nothing important, my head splitting, my eyes filled with tears so that every moment I must take out my handkerchief, then I compose music”.
A French psychoanalyst, LaCombe, has tried to place it all on a psychologic basis. Sunderman quotes him as follows: “For Borodin science expressed no sentiments or emotions, whereas music was the embodiment of both. His teacher and foster father, Zinin, had encouraged Borodin to become a scientist and not a musician. Borodin could never forget that he had been an illegitimate child and hence his true father whom he had never known had in the deepest sense discouraged him from expressing his emotion. Being particularly gifted in music, Borodin was thus faced with a most difficult psychological situation”.
To me this is a wholly unnecessary and labored attempt to find motivation unnecessary to the point in question. In the first place, there is good evidence that Borodin was not particularly disturbed by having been an illegitimate child; he is said to have readily identified his father to anyone who might be interested and that he had little concern about the legitimacy of his birth. Further the statement that he never knew his father is far from the truth for there is good evidence that he actually lived with his father and mother until his father died when Borodin was about 9 years of age. Instead of the strained psychologic explanation, I much prefer Borodin’s own statement: “I must point out that I am a composer looking for something unknown. I am almost ashamed to confess to my composing activities. For others the composition of music is the goal of their lives. For me it is only recreation, fun, which takes time from my serious business as a professor. I am absorbed in my work, my science, my academy, and my students. Men and women students are dear to me”. To me this is a completely adequate explanation for his preoccupation with scientific endeavors and for the welcome place he found for music as a relief and relaxation—a Sunday avocation, if you will.
In the year 1886, his wife was having so much difficulty with asthma that she was advised to leave Saint Petersburg for the drier, more wholesome climate of Moscow. Borodin’s letters reveal his continuing devotion. On February 14/26, 1887, he wrote to his wife: “My beloved, I shall not be able to come to see you during Carnival Week. I was asking myself whether to come to Moscow for a very short spell, but now I find I have to appear before the magistrate as a witness. Tomorrow we are having a dance. It will be ‘grandement beau. Il y aura de la bougie’, as is said in Murger’s La Vie de Boheme. I shall say no more about it and leave the description of the festivity to the more expert pen of your other correspondents”.
The dance to which he refers was given by the professors at the academy. Borodin spent the day working at his third symphony, after which he went to the dance dressed in the costume of a Russian peasant. It is said that he was in a particularly gay and lively mood that evening, dancing, telling jokes, etc., when suddenly he leaned forward, turned pale, and died immediately. Death is often attributed to a “heart attack”, though several biographers mention a ruptured aneurysm as the true cause, one referring to a rupture of the aorta, another to a rupture of the heart.
Borodin was buried in the cemetery of the Aleksandr Nevsky monastery, not far from the graves of Dostoievski, Tschaikowski, and Rubinstein and near that of Moussorgsky, first of the “line to die”. His casket was marked by a silver plate from the women physicians to whom he had given gratuitous instruction inscribed with the following: “To the founder, protector, and defender of the School of Medicine for Women.”
In 1889 some of Borodin’s friends provided an elaborate tombstone in honor of his memory. The design was a bust of Borodin, embellished with inscriptions of the structure of organic compounds, which he had studied, and of the main themes of some of the musical compositions. An obituary in the Journal of the Russian Chemical Society contained the following statement, “Borodin was very human. He was always looking for an opportunity to help someone. He gave money, advice, and assistance to any friend who asked him. In his later years when his memory was not so keen, he made notations on scraps of paper of the things he wanted to do. On one of these papers, he wrote, “Go to B and ask him to admit A into a hospital. Write a prescription for K. Talk to P concerning D. Could not something be done for V?” if he succeeded in helping someone, he was very happy.
The Lancet, March 10, 1887, said, “His published works are tolerably numerous and include papers on the analogy between phosphorus and arsenous acids from a toxicological point of view, on the estimation of salts in mineral waters, on brick tea, and a number of important articles on the estimation of nitrogen. By means of Professor Borodin’s process combined with that of Kjeldahl, the clinical physician has now a means whereby this estimation may be made with a very moderate amount of difficulty and trouble. In spite of his arduous professorial and laboratory work, Professor Borodin found time for the cultivation of the art of science of music, in which he was quite adept. He is, indeed said to have rendered valuable service to the cause of music in Russia.
Of all the biographers I believe Sunderman in his closing paragraphs has best summed up the place of Aleksandr Porfyrevich Borodin in the words: “Now fifty years after his death those scientific activities which were Borodin’s primary interest in life are to a large extent forgotten, while his music is becoming even more widely known. Borodin did not leave a great number of musical compositions but what he did leave has weight and commands respect. In the words of Sir Henry Hadow: ‘No musician has ever claimed immortality with so slender an offering, yet if there be indeed immortality in music his claim is incontestable’.”