Did Borodin really write Prince Igor?

Two romantic opera overtures and two concertos: the upcoming concert of the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra will transport you to the world of a medieval Russian heroic poem and a forest where a German hunter makes deals with the devil. In addition to popular pieces that evoke fantastic stories, two brilliant concertos will be performed at this Müpa Budapest concert on 20 April, both of which are captivating on first hearing.

The Győr Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance will begin as a traditional concert programme, with an overture and a concerto before the interval. Weber’s The Magic Huntsman is one of the first masterpieces of German Romantic opera. It has everything that made a stage play exciting in its time: folk elements, mysticism, magic, forbidden places, dangerous choices and situations, and supernatural, Faustian motifs. The well-known overture of the operatic thriller, which tells the story of the hunter who allies himself with the devil, evokes this magical, terrifying world.

The overture is followed by Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, which the legendary violinist József Joachim described the following way:

“The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, the most uncompromising, is that of Beethoven. Brahms’ is just as serious as Beethoven’s. The richest, the most delightful, was written by Max Bruch. But the most extreme, the jewel of the heart, is Mendelssohn’s.”

The soloist for the concerto at the concert on 20 April will be János Mátyás Stark, a young Hungarian violinist who has won numerous prizes as an instrumentalist and composer.


János Mátyás Stark. (c) Guido Werner

After the intermission, the audience will again hear an overture and a concerto with a special twist. The latter, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, is famous for its brilliant, jazzy runs:

“the greatest riff of all time composed exclusively for white keys”

– said the popular American musicologist-YouTuber Rick Beato about an excerpt from the first movement. The Piano Concerto will be performed by Tamta Magradze of Georgia, Special Prize winner of the 2021 Liszt Piano Competition, accompanied by the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra.

And how about the overture? It is Borodin’s Prince Igor. But was it really Borodin who wrote this extremely popular work, which is often performed on its own? What kind of man was this famous Russian composer, one of the ‘Russian Five’, known as the composer of one of the most moving and wonderful string quartets in the world? Was he a composer at all? One could write volumes about Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin – we’ve picked out a few interesting facts about the life of this extraordinary artist and the making of his only opera.

1. Borodin was born the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, registered under the name of a servant, and brought up by a retired military doctor and his wife.

2. He has already shown her extraordinary talent as a child, being fluent in French, German and Italian, playing the flute and cello, and later becoming self-taught on the violin. By the age of ten he was already composing.

3. He also studied medicine, chemistry, zoology and crystallography at the St Petersburg Academy of Medicine and Surgery. He completed his studies with honours. His doctoral thesis was on arsenic and phosphoric acid.

4. He considered himself primarily a natural scientist, and regarded composing music as a hobby: he called himself a “Sunday composer”.

5. A man of his own age, he was exceptionally attractive, tall, witty, good-humoured and with a winning smile. Towards the end of his life, however, he suffered from depression.

6. Married for love, he became a champion of women’s rights under the influence of his wife, the pianist Ekaterina Protapopova. He was a founding member of the St Petersburg Women’s Medical School.

7 He was remembered by his students and colleagues as a brilliant and exciting personality. He cared deeply for her students and helped them in any way she could. In his university classes, he was always witty, and often hummed various tunes.

8. He also conducted scientific experiments in his own home. During a heated discussion on music, the arts or women’s rights, he would suddenly jump up and run out of the room to see if something had exploded.

9. He couldn’t say no to anyone who came to him for help. He took people he knew into his house, supported ailing relatives, and petted stray cats.

10. He died at the age of 53. While having a costume party at her house, where he danced in Russian national costume, he suddenly collapsed. His death was caused by a burst artery.

11. He worked on his opera Prince Igor for nearly twenty years, composing it between 1869 and 1887, often interrupting his work. He also wrote the libretto himself, based on the medieval epic, The Song of Igor and The Kiev Chronicle.

12. After his death, his friends Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov decided to complete the opera.

13. Borodin played the overture, which is extremely popular even today, several times for his friends on the piano, but never wrote it down. Glazunov reconstructed it from memory and from notes scribbled on a few scraps of paper, and composed the final bars himself.

Article: Zsuzsanna Deák

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek