Molecules and music both have a place in the grand synthesis of life

Man playing a conical flask violin

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Music and chemistry go together in perfect harmony

‘Mr Borodin, it would be better if you gave less thought to writing songs. I have placed all my hopes in you and want you to be my successor one day. You waste too much time thinking about music. A man cannot serve two masters.’

Many of us, at some point, have been admonished for spending too little time on our scientific work – and so this reproach from Nikolai Zinin, the ‘father’ of Russian organic chemistry, to his protégé, Alexander Borodin, may, a century-and-a-half later, still elicit our empathy!

Chemistry can be a tough taskmaster, and studying towards a degree or carrying out full-time research can become all-consuming. Fortunately, these days, it is acknowledged that taking breaks can enhance productivity and creativity. For some, this may involve music – playing an instrument, attending a concert or listening to songs while cooking or exercising.

Despite this, some scientists still see music and the arts as occupying a lesser position in society – suitable as a hobby, and not something to pursue seriously. But others, like Borodin, have found a way to combine these two worlds. Even though Borodin regarded himself as a ‘Sunday composer’, writing music only in his spare time, he made significant contributions to both chemistry and musical composition.

Borodin was born in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1833. He began composing when he was nine and, around the same time, his mother was alarmed at his ‘experiments’ in the kitchen, which included self-made watercolours he used for painting.

He later studied chemistry at the Medical-Surgical Academy in St Petersburg under the famous Zinin, who pioneered the reduction of nitrobenzene to aniline, a major precursor to many rubber materials, pesticides, dyes and pharmaceuticals.

Together with Dmitri Mendeleev and others, Borodin founded the Russian Chemical Society in 1868. But arguably Borodin’s most important contribution to chemistry was the discovery of the aldol reaction, a powerful carbon–carbon bond-forming technique that has significant applications in industrial and pharmaceutical chemistry. Naming reactions after their discoverers was unfashionable at the time; otherwise, generations of undergraduate students would be familiar with Borodin’s name!

Borodin wrote, ‘For me, music is only rest; fun which takes time from my serious business as a professor.’ It is ironic, then, that it is chiefly as a musician that Borodin is remembered today. He played the piano, flute and cello and formed a group known as The Five to develop a Russian nationalist style of music. Borodin is best known for his opera ‘Prince Igor’, his first two symphonies and his two string quartets. His music was promoted abroad by Franz Liszt and many of his compositions were subsequently adapted into a popular musical called Kismet.

No musician has ever claimed immortality with so slender an offering

But perhaps Borodin was trying to squeeze too much into his life, and he died at the age of 53 from a heart attack at a fancy-dress party he had thrown for his scientific colleagues. About Borodin’s musical contributions, the noted musicologist Hendry Hadow wrote that, ‘No musician has ever claimed immortality with so slender an offering.’

Although Borodin is history’s most prominent chemist-composer, Edward Elgar is a worthy runner-up. He composed the famous ‘Enigma Variations’ and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, of which the first, known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, is the most famous. Unlike Borodin, chemistry was, for Elgar, a form of relaxation and he would spend hours pottering around in his garden shed-cum-laboratory nicknamed ‘The Ark’.

On one occasion, Elgar wrote to a friend, ‘I am resuming chemistry and made soap yesterday between scoring (not scouring!) the symphony.’ He even patented a device for easily producing hydrogen sulfide gas which was, at the time, a sought-after reagent for inorganic qualitative analysis.

Over half a century ago, the British scientist C P Snow lamented the way in which the arts and the sciences had diverged to become ‘two cultures’, observing that this dichotomy was a major hurdle to solving the world’s problems. But as Borodin and Elgar’s careers show, interests in both fields can complement (rather than confuse) one’s contributions to society. Borodin was respected not just for his pioneering research but also for encouraging and mentoring his colleagues and caring for his terminally ill wife – and this empathy may have been nurtured by his appreciation for the arts.

Science is essential for society, but let us not forget the value of the visual, literary and performing arts. Despite the challenges of ‘serving two masters’, we need both atoms and the arts to promote harmony in our world, and each of us will be the richer for it. Next time you are struck by a creative impulse – to write, compose or paint – why not indulge your desires? You never know where they may lead.

John Woodland is a research officer at the Holistic Drug Discovery and Development (H3D) Centre at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He also plays the organ, directs his own choral group and volunteers for a local classical music radio station.

Click here to listen to a famous recording of the sublime String Quartet No. 2 by Borodin, which he wrote for his wife in 1881.

And to listen to more music made by chemists, check out our Spotify playlist.