Alexander Borodin was a composer second, and a highly respected physician and professional chemist first. His compositions were an avocation. He regarded medicine and science (organic chemistry) as his primary occupations. His father was a 62 year old Georgian nobleman, who concealed the illegitimate circumstances of his son’s birth by registering him under the name of Borodin: a surname belonging to a serf on the estate. The biological father, Luka Gedevanishvili, emancipated him from serfdom (!) at the age of 7, and thereafter guided Borodin’s education and circumstances. Borodin was never recognized publicly by his biological mother, who was referred to as Borodin’s “aunt”. He studied at the Medical-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg (later attended by the world famous Pavlov), and spent the remainder of his career in scientific research and lecturing, making a number of recognized seminal discoveries (chemistry). Borodin took lessons in composition during 1862 at the age of 29, and married the following year. The marriage produced a daughter, Gania. Throughout his life Borodin suffered poor health, including cholera and several heart conditions. He died suddenly at the age of 54. Borodin produced considerable chamber work, two symphonies and three operas, the most renowned being Prince Igor (1869-1887), an unfinished piece completed eventually by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. The wonderful Polovetsian Dances come from this opera. Borodin was a member of the Russian nationalistic composers’ group known as “the mighty five” (Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Cui and Balakirev). His music was always richly lyrical, full of exotic “orientalisms”, and well-received. He entered the international celebrity realm when themes from his Quartet No. 2 (1881) were used in the 1953 production of Kismet.
In early August we played in the Woollahra Philharmonic’s Chamber Proms series at the historic Woollahra Council Chambers in Double Bay. It was a delicious program of late Romantics (Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Borodin, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov etc.) naturally we brought out the Prokofiev: Overture on Hebrew Themes, subject to an earlier post on this blog. Anyway, it was such fun writing the program notes, that the next few posts are going to feature some adaptations therefrom! Enjoy…..
Please do overlook our long absence! We have regrouped via expansion to a terrific new mixed ensemble, including both winds and strings. Our new denomination is: “East Windies Quintet (Plus!)” and we have already presented in the Blue Mountains…..which included the wonderful Overture on Hebrew Themes by Prokofiev. More on our repertoire to come, stay tuned!
Thinking about the relationship between Christian Science, the music of Prokofiev and the tenets of Judaism, one notable essay* about the personality and writings of Mary Baker Eddy stands out (Eddy founded the Christian Science religion in Boston at the end of the 19th century), It seems she was a woman of incredible capacity and determination, despite lifelong ill-health. That’s on the positive side. The negative side is more interesting, however:
- Her writings and beliefs are not exactly Christian, nor are they scientific.
- Her thinking was hardly original, but derived from a competing “guru” of the time, named Phineas P. Quimby. (the name itself raises suspicions of charlantry!).
- She was outrageously paranoid, and blamed the death of her 3rd husband on poisoning from enemies.
- In another sign of mental instability: she told colleagues she wanted to be remembered as “mentally murdered”.
The fine line between genius and insanity? I recommend the 2002 article:
Not many classical composers are known for their religious inclinations, including any general awareness of Prokofiev’s penchant for Christian Science: A vaguely Protestant, cultish religion developed in the USA by Mary Baker Eddy and her published text, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875). His diary indicates that from about 1924 both Prokofiev and his wife Lina followed Christian Science principles, particularly the tenet that sickness was an illusion. Meditation around this tenet had a calming effect.
But, did it affect his music? Sources claim that it did. He heavily condemned his own opera The Fiery Angel for its moral heresy, for example, and subsequently wrote mainly of characters with high moral virtues and a spiritual attitude.
Fortunately all his confusion between spiritual urges and sensual text occurred well after the creation of Overture on Hebrew Themes (1919) in New York. That many (reform-progressive) Jews promoted Christian Science in the late 19th century, suggests the Overture never provoked spiritual condemnation from its composer,
Prokofiev left America in 1920 for life in Paris (and later a short stay in Bavaria, where he wrote the “heretical” Fiery Angel). He returned permanently to Russia in 1936.
As for Christian Science, he remained convinced of the faith for the rest of his life.
Journal of Religion and Society, Vol 15 (2013). Rolf Swensen, “Israel’s Return to Zion” – Jewish Christian Scientists in the United States, 1880 – 1925.
Bathtub Bulletin (July 19, 2017). Mike Zonta. Prokofiev the Christian Scientist (Search-for-emes.blogspot.com). Accessed 10.1.2018.
Wikipedia. Sergei Prokofiev. Accessed 10.1.2018
Wikipedia. Overture on Hebrew Themes. Accessed 10.1.2018
The Russian émigré ensemble Zimro approached Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953) during his USA period with a commission and a book of Jewish folk tunes for guidance! The result was a charming sextet with Klezmer influences: Overture on Hebrew Themes opus 34 (1919), for clarinet, piano and string quartet. It was premiered in New York City in 1920, with Prokofiev as guest pianist. The Overture was later grudgingly transcribed for chamber orchestra (1934): “I don’t understand what sort of obtuse people could have found it necessary to reorchestrate….”