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Dmitri Kabalevsky and “The Comedians”

\Dmitri Borisovich Kabalevsky (December 30, 1904–February 18, 1987) was a noted Russian composer, pianist, and writer who helped to set up the Union of Soviet Composers in Moscow and remained one of its leading figures. Kabalevsky was born in Saint Petersburg. His father was a mathematician who dealt with the national insurance and encouraged him to study mathematics or economics. However, in early life Dmitri maintained a fascination with the arts, and became an accomplished young pianist, including a three-year stint as a pianist in silent theatres. He also dabbled in poetry and painting. His father gave him a liberal education. By the time he was 14 years old, Kabalevsky and his family had moved to Moscow where he had received his primary education in music at the Scriabin Musical Institute from 1919 to 1925. Kabalevsky excelled at being a pianist and began to instruct at the Scriabin Institute as well as compose for his students, primarily for the piano. In 1925, against his father’s wishes, he accepted a place at the Moscow Conservatory, studying composition under Nikolai Myaskovsky and piano with Alexander Goldenweiser, graduating in 1930. Miaskovsky’s compositional influence can be recognized in Kabalevsky’s works such as the Three Poems of Blok (1927), considered his most daring work, and his first well known works, the First Piano Concerto (1928), which launched him into the forefront of Soviet composers, and the charming C Major Sonatina for piano (1930), which brought him international acclaim.

In the late 1920’s there was great tension between the main forces of Soviet music. In 1925, Kabalevsky also joined PROKULL (Production Collective of Student Composers), a student group affiliated with Moscow Conservatory aimed at bridging the gap between the modernism of the ACM (Association of Contemporary Musicians) and the utilitarian “agitprop” music of the RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians). Kabalevsky associated himself with neither one exclusively. He showed his promise as a writer in 1927 with his contributions to an ASM journal, but he wrote his Poem of Struggle (1930) in line with the proletarian ideal of the RAPM using melodies from songs of the revolution. The tension between the two organizations ended in 1932 with the construction of the Union of Soviet Composers, which was spearheaded by Kabalevsky himself. He became an assistant instructor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory in 1932, and by 1939 he was appointed a full professor. This period until 1942 is considered to be Kabalevsky’s strongest. During this time he wrote much incidental music for radio and stage. In 1936 he wrote his first opera, Colas Breugnon, which was based on the novel by Romain Rolland set in 17th century France and using French folk idioms in a fresh but traditional way; it first appeared in 1938 and it was an immediate success. It is to be noted that Kabalevsky himself became dissatisfied with its dramatic structure, so he revised it in both 1953 and 1969. His suite The Comedians (1940), is another well-known work.

During World War II, Kabalevsky lent his musical talents to the war effort had by written several inspirational songs, battle hymns, and other patriotic pieces, having joined the Communist Party in 1940, and was the editor of Sovetskaya Muzyka for its special six-volume publishing run during the war. He also composed and performed many pieces for silent movies and some theatre music. By 1941 he had received the Medal of Honor from the Soviet government for his musical prowess. In 1942, Kabalevsky’s three huge works, Vast Motherland, Revenger of the People, and Into the Fire, were written to inspire heroism and patriotism among the Soviets. His popular The Taras Family (1947) used out-taken music from the opera Into the Fire, and became a huge success even in light of the 1948 party decree of music in Russia, probably because Kabalevsky’s music had become more lyrical in nature.

In 1948, when Andrei Zhdanov declared his resolution on the directions that Soviet music should take, Kabalevsky was originally on the list of named composers who were the most guilty of formalism because of his position in the leadership of the Union of Soviet Composers; however, due to his connections with official circles, his name was removed. In general, Kabalevsky was not as adventurous as his contemporaries in terms of harmony and preferred a more conventional diatonicism, interlaced with chromaticism and major-minor interplay. Unlike fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev, he embraced the ideas of socialist realism, and his post-war works have been characterized as “popular, bland, and successful,” though some of Kabalevsky’s best-known “youth works” date from this era (the Violin Concerto, the First Cello Concerto).

Perhaps Kabalevsky’s most important contribution to the world of music-making was his consistent efforts to connect children to music. Not only did he write music specifically directed at bridging the gap between children’s technical skills and adult aesthetics, but during his lifetime he set up a pilot program of music education in twenty-five Soviet schools. Kabalevsky himself taught a class of seven-year-olds for a time, teaching them how to listen attentively and put their impressions into words. In 1961, Kabalevsky made some stereo recordings, conducting his Overture Pathetique, Spring, and Songs or Morning. In Kabalevsky’s later life, his music had become more entwined in choral music. The Requiem, Op. 72, (1962), a secular work to poems by Robert Rozhdestvensky dedicated to those who died fighting fascism, is a great example. He was awarded a number of state honors for his musical works (including three Stalin Prizes). Kabalevsky also became quite a force in musical education. He was elected the head of the Commission of Musical Esthetic Education of Children in 1962 as well as being elected president of the Scientific Council of Educational Esthetics in the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR in 1969. His later compositions include the operetta The Sisters (1967) and the oratorio Letter to the 30th Century (1972). In addition, Kabalevsky received the honorary degree of president of the International Society of Musical Education. His notable students included Leo Smit. He died in Moscow on February 18, 1987, at an advanced age, not long before final collapse of Soviet regime.

Dmitri Kabalevsky wrote for all musical genres. His music for adults includes 4 symphonies, 5 operas, 8 concertos, quartets, sonatas and much else, His pieces were all faithful to the ideals of Soviet realism as well. In Russia, he is most noted for his vocal songs, cantatas, and operas while overseas he is known for his orchestral music. Kabalevsky frequently travelled overseas; he was a member of the Soviet Committee for the Defense of Peace as well as a representative for the Promotion of Friendship between the Soviet Union and foreign countries. Kabalevsky’s music for children has been loved and played by young musicians all over the world, and he wrote three concertos “dedicated to Soviet youth,” Violin Concerto (1948), Cello Concerto No.1 (1949) and Piano Concerto No.3 (1952). His 24 Piano Preludes, based on Russian folksongs from the Rimsky-Korsakov collection, were frequently played by Vladimir Horowitz. In the 1950s and 1960s, along with Tikhon Khrennikov, he was one of the most powerful figures in Soviet musical life. In spite of Russia’s control over its composers and artists, Kabalevsky managed to build a successful career for himself. He will be long remembered as an icon of Soviet Russian nationalism.

My collection contains the following works by Dmitri Kabalevsky:

Colas Breugnon (1938): Suite, op. 24a.
The Comedians, suite for small orchestra, op. 26 (1940, from the play The Inventor and the Comedian).
Romeo and Juliet (incidental music, 1956): Suite.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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