In 1869, Borodin was sent a scenario by Stasov of a three-act opera based on the 12th century epic The Story of Igor's army. The composer, still anxious for operatic success, began work in September, writing words and music at the same time. In March 1870, dissatisfied with the subject's dramatic potential, he abandoned the work.
Borodin returned to Prince Igor in 1874-5 composing the famous Polovstian March and Dances. The part-time composer then worked on the opera on and off until his death in 1887. The task of completing and orchestrating Prince Igor fell to Borodin's colleagues Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. Glazunov's greatest achievement was to reconstruct the overture from memory; Borodin had composed it in 1887 and never written it down, though he had played it to family and friends.
Other highlights are Vladamir's lyrical cavatina, Medienno den'ugasal, and Yaroslavna's aria Ne malo vremeni proslo s tech por. The chorus scenes are also particularly effective and include the vibrant barbarism of the Polovstian dances, often performed separately in the concert hall.
Prince Igor was first performed in St Petersburg on 16 Novemeber 1890.
Alexander Borodin would not have been so named today. An illegitimate child of a Georgian prince, when his mother married a doctor common practice dictated that her son should be legally registered as the son of one of her new husband's serfs. Nonetheless he was still raised and educated by his mother, who arranged him to have lessons with a local piano teacher. This fostered an already innate love of music, an interest so consuming that Borodin taught himself to play the cello and composed many minor works. He also began his first steps in chemistry, intrigued at first by the possiblity of making things explode.
1850 saw Borodin enter the Medico-Surgical Academy where he studied numerous disciplines. Although music frequently distracted him from his studies, he graduated cum laude and was posted to a military hospital to gain experience. Going on to distinguish himself in the fields of medicine and chemistry, it was not until 1862 that he returned seriously to composition. This was partly due to a romance with a brilliant pianist whom he later married, and partly due to a new friendship with Mily Balakirev , with whose help he began his first symphony. Due to his responsibilities as reader in chemistry at the academy, the symphony took until 1867 to complete and was premiered in 1869. By this time Borodin had also had an opera, The Bogatirs, performed at the Bolshoi, although it was not well received.
After beginning a second symphony, Borodin began his greatest work, the opera Prince Igor. Again, work had to take precedence and although he returned to it throughout the rest of his life it was not until after his death that it was completed by his compatriots Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov. The ongoing interest in one work led to a consistent mode of approach to other pieces Borodin wrote at the time, such as the second string quartet and In the Steppes of Central Asia . He died in 1887, suffering a stroke at a party.