Kabalevsky – Connecting Children to Music

KabalevskyI was fortunate to meet and speak with Russian composer and educator, Dmitri Kabalevsky, here in the USA two years before his death in Moscow on February 14, 1987. He was born in St. Petersburg on December 30, 1904. His father was a mathematician and encouraged him to study mathematics; however, in early life he maintained a fascination with the arts, and became an accomplished young pianist, including a three-year stint as a pianist in silent theaters. He also dabbled in poetry and painting.

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. In the same year he joined PROKULL (Production Collective of Student Composers), a student group affiliated with Moscow Conservatory. He became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory in 1932.

During World War II, he wrote many patriotic songs, 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 theater music.

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. His writings on this subject were published in the United States in 1988 as Music and education: a composer writes about musical education. I should add from a personal perspective that my piano-teacher wife, Lolita, has in her collection of music books a number of Kabalevsky albums of short pieces published by Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics, such as, 30 Pieces for Children, Op. 27 and Children’s Dreams, Op. 88. She herself is founder of the NotePerfect Project, an innovative educational method which teaches young children how to read music using a set of tools that are hands-on, child-griendly – and fun! The company’s attractive Website is at noteperfectproject.com.

Kabalevsky was awarded a number of state honors for his musical works (including three Stalin Prizes). Indeed, he had become 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 president of the Scientific Council of Educational Esthetics in the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences of the USSR in 1969.

Kabalevsky wrote for all musical genres and was consistently faithful to the ideals of socialist realism. In Russia, he is most noted for his vocal songs, cantatas, and operas while overseas he is known for his orchestral music. 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.

Kabalevsky also served as president of the Australia-based International Society of Musical Education and it was in that context I was able to interview him at ISME’s 16th international conference in Eugene, Oregon, in 1984. I myself was then the Managing Director of the National Guild of Community Schools of the Arts (NGCSA) – now known as the National Guild of Community Arts Education (NGCAE) – based in New York City. In that capacity, I helped to start community arts schools around the country including Canada. Also, in 1956 I had had the privilege of meeting Zoltan Kodaly in Budapest, Hungary – another composer and educator of lasting fame who personally took me around his music school where the Kodaly Method was being taught to legions of youngsters.

Of the Kabalevsky oeuvre, I avowed to him that I had a special affinity with his significant Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 46 (1946), which I had frequently performed at recitals, here and abroad. For those unfamiliar with the work, here’s a summary of the sonata performed by Josh Hillmann in a recording on YouTube of April 29, 1012 :

Two delightful but subdued themes dominate the first movement, but a third melody, with a march-like character, provides dramatic contrast; a folk-like melody unfolds in the second movement, interrupted by a dissonant section; the finale is martial music, opening with a three-note theme answered by two notes in the bass. That last movement depends for its main interest on powerful rhythmic surges and sweep. Recollections of the main themes from the first movement emerge in the background; but the movement is primarily dominated by the martial subject, which is eventually built into an exultant climax of this remarkable 15-minute modern work for piano.

Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen, ISME Yearbook

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