Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky, a pioneer of the official Soviet tradition of socialist-realist music and for decades a leading light of the Union of Soviet Composers, was born in St.Petersburg on 30 December 1904. After a false start as a painter, he entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1925 where he studied piano with Alexander Goldenweiser and composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky, graduating in 1930.
He soon began a lifelong career as a teacher, while at the same time throwing himself into musical politics, dividing himself between the more cosmopolitan modernists in the Association of Contemporary Music and the radical leftist Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians. When such organisations were disbanded in the early 1930s, he gravitated towards their official replacements, becoming a senior figure in the newly formed Union of Composers in 1938. From 1940 (in which year he joined the Communist Party) to 1946, he was senior editor of the magazine Sovietskaya Muzyka, a position giving him great power over the fate of other composers’ music. Narrowly escaping public criticism in the 1948 campaign against ‘formalism’, he strengthened his role as an arbiter of official taste, outspokenly favouring music based on the simplest academic models, with a strong basis in folk-song and 19th century Russian music, and with a clear feeling of political and social optimism. In the 1950s and 1960s, along with Tikhon Khrennikov, he was one of the most powerful figures in Soviet musical life.
Kabalevsky made a crucial impact on Soviet musical education. His ditties and nursery-rhymes for very small children, his prolific output of study-pieces for young pianists and other instrumentalists, his innumerable songs, cantatas and anthems for the Pioneers and other Soviet youth organisations, made him easily the most familiar composer to anyone who grew up in the USSR. His children’s piano pieces have found a wide outlet with teachers in the West too.
His music for adults, including 4 symphonies, 5 operas, 8 concertos, quartets, sonatas and much else, usually aspires to the same condition as his children’s music. He favoured clarity and simplicity of form, traditional melodies and gestures, sweet moments of melancholy in the slow movements and cheerful optimism to end, often with a bracing dash of neo-classical motor rhythms. In this spirit, the overture to his first opera, Colas Breugnon (1938), has had most success outside his native land, although his Requiem (1963), dedicated ‘to those killed in the struggle against fascism’ and with texts by Robert Rozhdestvensky, looks towards darker themes.
In Russia Kabalevsky is well remembered for his trio of concertos, for piano, violin and cello, ‘dedicated to Soviet youth’. These balance his children’s style with his adult one to create works capable of being performed by talented young soloists together with a ‘grown-up’ symphony orchestra. Many Soviet soloists first cut their performing teeth on these pieces.
Dmitry Kabalevsky is published by Boosey & Hawkes.