From Pastime To Masterpiece
by Benjamin Pomerance
Perhaps you have heard this tune before. Yes, that’s it — Strangers In Paradise, hit song from the Broadway musical Kismet, covered repeatedly by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and seemingly every other slick crooner of their era. A work sung so often that most listeners never even consider where that infatuatingly lilting melody comes from, perhaps assuming that it is the product of some member of the Tin Pan Alley crowd and then never giving it another thought.
But nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a story to be told for anyone willing to dig a little, a tale that can be every bit as captivating as the song itself.
For this is a story for the amateurs. This is a story for the hobbyists. This is a story that belongs in the hearts of all people who stay up late, long after their day jobs have concluded, toiling over some pastime that means the world to them. Let the naysayers poke their fun at the obsessed. This is the story of one who made it, who took a fervent pursuit and carved out a reason for the world to remember his name.
The man was Alexander Borodin. Perhaps you haven’t heard his masterpiece before, an opera titled Prince Igor? Most likely, that is because the piece is so grandiose that only the largest companies possess the resources necessary to mount a full production of it, contributing to its relative obscurity. But the music is undeniably stunning. In fact, much of Borodin’s catalog earned high marks from even the toughest critics. Revered composers from Franz Liszt to Ralph Vaughan Williams heaped hearty helpings of praise upon the man’s artistic brilliance.
All of which would be impressive company for any writer of music to join. Yet it becomes even more surprising when considering Borodin’s full story. For him, composing was only a part-time gig. He was a chemist, one of the most successful researchers of his day. He spent most of his time teaching, writing scientific treatises, and delivering lectures about his discoveries. Much of his musical knowledge came without formal instruction. Hours when he was actually able to compose were scarce.
Which leaves an obvious question: how someone who delved into the musical realm only as a hobby — who even stated that he was “slightly ashamed to admit that I compose” — could produce such substantial creations. There is no obvious answer. His life’s travels, though, provide some clues, a roadmap for people who want the work of their sideline quests to live on.
First, you have to get off to a strong start. Borodin almost stumbled right there. He was an illegitimate child, the progeny of Prince Luka Gedianov and his 24-year-old mistress. In Russia during the 1830s, the offspring of such royal dalliances were all too often cast aside by society. Yet the prince was good to him and to his mother, ensuring that they were financially secure.
Next, you need to absorb knowledge like a sponge cake soaking up caramel sauce. By his teenage years, Borodin could already speak German, French, Italian, and English fluently. He had learned to play cello, flute, and piano. He also had taught himself how to make fireworks, the first signs of a zest for science that would lead him to study at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. At the age of 23, he earned his doctorate in chemistry. Ultimately, he would end up teaching at the Academy, leading the charge for the school to accept female pupils.
Meeting friends in high places doesn’t hurt, either. Two years after beginning his professorship at the Academy, Borodin connected with four of Russia’s most outspoken artists: the composers Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Cesar Cui, and Mily Balakirev. Together, the four men had pledged to create a distinctly Russian compositional tone, utilizing European traditions but distinct from the sounds of the West. By this point, Borodin was already writing music. With enormous trepidation, he showed some of these early efforts to Balakirev.
He needn’t have worried. Balakirev was stunned that the bookish professor of medicine could produce such emotionally charged creations. After showing the works to the other three composers, the group welcomed Borodin into their innermost sanctum, anointing themselves “The Mighty Handful” and declaring that they were the ambassadors of “truth in music.”
Each of the other four men played an active role in Borodin’s subsequent artistic development. Mussorgsky, for instance, introduced Borodin to the piano works of Robert Schumann, opening Borodin’s ears to a harmonic language that strongly influenced his future creations. Balakirev and Cui helped Borodin improve the structure and form of his music. And after Borodin had passed away, Rimsky-Korsakov gathered up the stacks of pieces that Borodin simply didn’t have time to finish and ushered them into full orchestral bloom.
Another friend, the flamboyant composer and pianist Franz Liszt, ensured that Borodin’s notes reached the ears of listeners outside of Russia. In 1877, Borodin traveled to Germany, helping some of his chemistry students enroll at Jena University. While there, he met up with Liszt, who invited Borodin to his house in Weimar. At some point during the evening, Borodin timidly revealed copies of his two symphonies, asking Liszt how he should revise the works.
The response from the musical mastermind likely astounded the gifted novice. “Heaven forbid!” Liszt declared. “Do not touch it, alter nothing. Your artistic instinct is such that you need not fear to be original.” His words were more than just idle praise. The European premieres of both symphonies were organized under Liszt’s direction.
And lastly, the Borodin formula for success calls for the right lifetime partner. Borodin fell for the virtuosic pianist Ekaterina Protopopova at the pivot point of his careers, one year before joining “The Mighty Handful” and barely a decade into his scientific research. Shortly after their engagement, he wrote his first major work, an imaginative piano quintet. The most prolific period of his life soon followed. His most frequently-played composition, the lush String Quartet No. 2, emerged during one of their summer holidays, an anniversary present in melody.
Yet the chronicle of Borodin’s life also comes with a warning. History records that the man faced one overriding dilemma: a complete inability to say no. Every cause that called for his attention, every committee that needed a chairperson, every political leader who wanted an advisor, and every person who tugged on his sleeve received his undivided devotion.
On top of this whirlpool of obligations, Borodin and Ekaterina decided to adopt a daughter, who became the unquestioned focal point of their lives. Even Ekaterina’s sleep schedule — refusing to go to bed before 4 a.m. and then resting until 2 p.m. — became a trial.
The result was a madcap existence that another great Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich, described in a first-hand account. “He spent more and more time as he grew older on philanthropy, primarily for women’s causes,” Shostakovich wrote, “and those butchered him as a composer. Borodin’s apartment was a madhouse. He always had a bunch of sick relatives living with him, or just poor people, or visitors who took sick or even went mad. Naturally, there was always someone sleeping in every room, on every couch, and on the floor.”
At least once, even Borodin himself wondered what might have been. Late in his life, he wrote to Ekaterina about being a jack of all trades. “In trying to be a composer, a civil servant, scientist, commissioner, artist, government official, philanthropist, father of other people’s children, and doctor,” he concluded, “I ended up being the last in line.” A few years later, he attended a fancy dress ball, celebrating the Russian Orthodox holiday of Maslenitsa. Just after midnight, he collapsed, victim of a massive heart attack. Within seconds, he was gone.
But then Rimsky-Korsakov scooped up those unfinished manuscripts, completing them in a manner that was true to Borodin’s style. And then, many years later, a team of Broadway writers heard Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, the dramatic finale to the second act of his Prince Igor. One movement in particular, a segment titled Dance of the Maidens, particularly caught their attention. And when those writers developed Kismet, they took that dance and set lyrics to it: the now-familiar words of Strangers In Paradise.
Through these dances, along with his string quartets and his symphonies and the tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia, Alexander Borodin still lives. Plenty of colleges and universities still remember him as a scientist, with a number of his studies standing the test of time as part of the standard medical literature. Yet it is through his after-hours gig that Borodin is best known, with ensembles around the world bringing to life the products of his labors.
And as the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra plays those Polovtsian Dances on October 22, audience members can now recognize this work as more than simply a familiar tune that was used in a Broadway show and treasured by a generation of pop stars. Instead, it can rightfully be seen as a life-affirming statement. And anyone who has ever spent a sleepless night out of devotion to a hobby can use this performance to honor an artist who spoke that same language of inexplicable passion, a man whose pastime chiseled a niche that will long be remembered.