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About the Russian Composer, Dmitry Kabalevsky's Works and Life

Dmitry Kabalevsky: Overview 

  • Born: 1904 - St. Petersburg, USSR
  • Died: 1987 - Moscow, USSR
  • Historical Period: The 20th Century 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboards, opera

Composer Dmitry Kabalevsky & his children

The picture above: Dmitry Kabalesvky in the middle with his children in 1909


Dive Deeper: Dmitry Kabalevsky - The Controversial Musician Who Pioneered Socialist Realism 

Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky born on the 30th of December 1904 in St. Petersburg, was destined to follow the footsteps of his father for a career in economics and mathematics. However, his inherent fascination with arts combined with a liberal upbringing influenced young Dmitry to dabble in painting and poetry. He also succeeded in steering his career towards a completely different direction, transcending as an aspiring pianist.

Early Life

In 1918, the Kabalevsky family moved to Moscow. A 14-year-old Dmitri started his primary education in music in 1919 at the Scriabin Musical Institute, where he also studied painting. In 1922, he sat for the entrance exam of the Engels Socio-Economic Science Institute, but much to the dismay of his father joined the Moscow Conservatory instead. The next three years saw him excel as a pianist, as he began composing at the Conservatory. He took further lessons in piano and composition from Alexander Goldenweiser and Nikolai Myaskovsky respectively. 


He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory as a composer in 1925. In 1932, he joined the “Union of Soviet Composers” and also became a faculty member at the Conservatory. Notably, his earliest compositions were merely studies, crafted for his young students. During this period, he crafted his “First Piano Sonatina,” “First-String Quartet,” and “First Piano Concerto.” These pieces immediately attracted international acclaim, launching him into the vanguard of Soviet Composers.          

In this decade he also created his “Second Symphony” along with a substantial amount of film music. The “Second Symphony” received plaudits for its intensive dramatic effect and heartfelt lyrics. His Second Piano Concerto (1935), along with the opera “Colas Breugnon” is considered among his finest works. Dmitry made it a point to follow the official Communist party line as a survival strategy under Joseph Stalin's dictatorship. He finally joined the Communist Party in 1940 and was instantly offered the position of Chief Editor of the party’s “Soviet Music” magazine.         

Kabalevsky was initially blacklisted as "anti-Soviet" by Andrei Zhdanov, the Communist Censor. Though in 1948, he repented to the party and was cleared of such allegations. However, his famous colleagues Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, and his teacher Nikolai Miaskovsky were viciously criticized by the censor. 

He also served as the Head of the Music Department at the Moscow Art Institute from 1949 to 1952. He started serving as the Secretary of the Soviet Composers Union in the same year and held the post for the next 35 years. During his tenure, he made the controversial decision to approve the ban on Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.’ He cited that the opera, which was already banned from 1936 to 1956 portrayed infidelity and murder – events against the standards of Soviet morality.        

Socialist Realism 

He composed the music for multiple Soviet movies, Ivan Pavlov (1949) being the most notable among them. The film depicted Pavlov’s research on conditioning humans and dogs to food, lights, and sounds. However, during 3 decades spanning from the 1950s to 1970s, he inaugurated a special education system for children. The system conditioned children to certain chosen marches and songs via singing, marching and listening to music. Children were barred from developing personal skills or playing instruments and instead had to study about Kabalevsky’s “three whales” theory of music and listen to recommended songs. All around the Soviet Union, children were conditioned to the State approved political demonstrations, parades, official marches, and symbols. However, such ideas were met with great resistance in the Baltic Republics who championed choral music on weekends, and Georgia & Ukraine, where folk music was considered a rich family tradition. 

Kabalevsky himself faced no resistance, he was himself a seasoned politician and lecturer and was generously funded by the Soviet Government to preach his thoughts in public schools all across Russia. He successfully conditioned several generations of children to follow his norms, offering a stark resemblance to Pavlov’s experiment. His staunch traditional stance as a music composer along with his educational work on Soviet children oozed a strong sense of civic duty, which the Soviet regime duly appreciated. He received the “Stalin's Prize” twice along with numerous State prizes and perquisites. He was anointed as the “People’s Artist of USSR” and further awarded the “Order of Lenin.” He was also honored as the “Hero of Socialist Labor” in 1974.     

His Best Works

The Comedians 

In 1938, Kabalevsky composed “The Comedians, Op. 26,” an incidental piece crafted to accompany the stage play titled “Inventor” and “Comedian.” The play was based on a group of traveling entertainers and was held at the Central Children’s Theatre of Moscow. The play is seldom performed today, however, the dances, the energetic and lighthearted songs, and the interludes composed by the artist continue to be popular. 

Colas Breugnon 

This opera was based on Romain Rolland’s novel, and is also known as “The Master-Craftsman of Clamecy Op.24.” The protagonist is “Colas Breugnon,” a fictional Burgundian optimist and the story is set in the 16th Century in Clamecy, Nièvre.   

Piano Concerto No. 3

This tuneful and charming piece combines several effective pianistic pyrotechnics, albeit keeping it within the grasp (understanding) of a student. It has three movements - “Allegro molto,” the opening motion inaugurates with a dramatic trumpet tune, which is subsequently followed by swirling piano compositions. Next comes the central cadenza, and the movement ends with the return of the opening trumpet fanfare. The second movement, “Andante con moto” utilizes G minor in a prevalent austere style. Its central section offers a faster tempo, while the opening theme returns to end the movement. “Presto,” the final movement commences at a lightning speed, which is then briefly interrupted by a little march towards the middle portion. The penultimate portion offers an expansive romantic melody as the piece climaxes with a “prestissimo coda.”   

The Pioneer

His later years saw him devote most of his time towards solo compositions and choral works. He frequently crafted songs for children and large-scale compositions for professional performances, which later became musical symbols. In 1962, he composed “Requiem,” a monumental piece dedicated to World War II victims. 

He championed a diatonic style primarily connected with folk music. He refused to evolve, rejecting any new direction in music. His work was often characterized as bland, yet hugely popular. His music was also spat as “Prokofiev accompanied with water.” Though highly controversial and bureaucratic, his works for children were his most important contribution to the musical world. He firmly believed that neither life nor music could exist without children. He passed away on the 14th of February 1987 in Moscow.

Due to his political stance, he never received much popularity in the west. However, there is plentiful to be learned from the extraordinary and extensive melodious legacy he left behind. His musical heritage clearly signified the most important characteristics of his personality – a symbiotic connection to his surroundings and immaculate depth of perception.


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