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He helped set up the Union of Soviet Composers in Moscow and remained one of its leading figures during his lifetime. He was a prolific composer of piano music and chamber music; many of his piano works were performed by Vladimir Horowitz. He is best known in Western Europe for his Second Symphony, the "Comedians' Galop" from The Comedians Suite, Op. 26 and his third Piano Concerto.
Kabalevsky was born in Saint Petersburg in 1904, but moved to Moscow at a young age. His father was a mathematician and encouraged him to study mathematics, but he showed a fascinations for the arts from a young age. He studied at the Academic Music College, Moscow and graduated in 1925. He then went on to study at the Moscow Conservatory where he learned composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky and piano with Alexander Goldenweiser. By the age of 26 his list of compositions included the String Quartet, Op. 8, Piano Concerto, Op. 9, Eight Children's Songs, Op. 17, and various works for solo piano. In 1925 he 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 and the utilitarian "agitprop" music of the RAPM. (add cit.) In 1932 he was appointed senior lecturer at the Moscow Conservatory and by 1939 was a full-time professor. He also worked as a music critic for the All-Union Radio and as an editor for the Sovetskaya muzïka and the publisher Muzgiz.
Kabalevsky was a prolific composer in many ways, he wrote symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber works, songs, theatre, film scores, pieces for children and some pieces for the proletariat. During the 1930's he wrote music for the emerging genre of films with sound (Shostakovich and Prokofiev also wrote music for this genre), some of his music became recognized in its own right. However, his biggest contribution to the world of music-making was his consistent effort to connect children to music. During 1925-6 he worked as a piano teacher in a government school and was struck by the lack of proper material for children to learn music. He set out to write easy pieces that would allow children to conquer technical difficulties and at the same time begin to form their taste. His music focused on bridging the gap between children's technical skills and adult aesthetics. He also wrote a book on the subject, which was published in the United States in 1988 as Music and Education: A Composer Writes about Musical Education.
He joined the Communist Party in 1940 and received the Medal of Honour from the Soviet government for his musical skill in 1941. In 1948, when Andrei Zhdanov declared his resolution on the directions and changes for Soviet music, Kabalevsky was originally on the list of named composers who were the most guilty of formalism, but due to his connections within official circles, his name was removed. Another theory states that Kabalevsky's name was only on the list because of his position in the leadership of the Union of Soviet Composers.
His traditional stance as a composer, combined with his strong sense of civil duty expressed in his educational work, endeared him to the Soviet regime and earned him a long list of honours and awards, including the Lenin Prize in 1972 and the Hero of Socialist Labour in 1974. This is a testament to his ability to work creatively in the same conditions in which so many of his contemporary composers had difficulties.
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. The important role played by the subdominant and the frequent juxtaposition of thirds in Kabalevsky's works are features common to many Russian composers. His use of form is mostly conventional as he preferred symmetrical rondo or variation structures.
Unlike fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev, Kabalevsky embraced the ideas of socialist realism, and his post-war works have been characterized as "popular, bland, and successful," though this judgement has been applied to many other composers of the time. Some of Kabalevsky's best-known "youth works" date from this era, such as the Violin Concerto and the First Cello Concerto. Kabalevsky wrote for all musical genres and was consistently faithful to the ideals of socialist realism. Kabalevsky frequently traveled 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.
In 1961, Kabalevsky made a recording of his Overture Pathetique, Spring, and Songs of Morning, in which he conducted. It was released in the U.S. in 1975 on the Westminster Gold label.
He was awarded a number of state honors for his musical works, including those given by the Soviet government. In regards to his teaching, he was elected the head of the Commission of Musical Aesthetic Education of Children in 1962, and was also elected president of the Scientific Council of Educational Aesthetics in the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR in 1969. Kabalevsky also received the honorary degree of president of the International Society of Musical Education.
His notable students included Leo Smit.
He died in Moscow on 14 February 1987.
Honours and awards
- People's Artist of the RSFSR (1954).
- People's Artist of USSR (1963).
- Hero of Socialist Labour (1974).
- Four Orders of Lenin (1964, 1971, 1974, 1984)
- Order of the Red Banner of Labour (1966)
- Order of the Badge of Honour (1940)
- Lenin Prize (1972) – a new version of the opera "Colas Breugnon" (1968)
- Stalin Prizes
- first class (1946) – for the 2nd quartet (1945)
- second class (1949) – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1948)
- second class – for the opera "Taras Family" (1950)
- USSR State Prize (1980) – for the 4th Concerto for Piano and Orchestra ("Prague") (1979)
- Glinka State Prize of the RSFSR (1966) – for "Requiem" for soloists, two choirs and orchestra (1962)
- Lenin Komsomol Prize (1984)
- Ivan Pavlov (1949)
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