“…Music first of all expresses the inner spirituality of the human being, that is, a person’s thoughts and feelings – but not only the thoughts and feelings of one person: the strength of the musical art is its ability to express the thoughts and feelings of humanity at large.” ~ Dmitry Kabalevsky
A noble sentiment. One can’t argue with it; it’s an uplifting and inspirational thought.
Kabalevsky (1904-1987, Russia) was an important music educator and composer, his contributions standing alongside Kodaly, Orff, Suzuki and Dalcroze. His teaching pieces are listed at every level in our Canadian syllabi. They’re good pieces – good music, pedagogically sound, and the students enjoy them. He based them on the song, the dance, and the march, which he said were like the three great whales that supported the earth in ancient mythology. He believed that children should be introduced to these first; from there they would be able to branch out and enjoy much other music.
What I’ve only recently learned is that Kabalevsky was an important man in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He was associated directly and indirectly with the the events, decisions and directions that shaped Soviet Music in the 40s and 50s. From the early 60s he was involved with revising and implementing changes to the syllabus in the school system. He was influential in a system that has produced many very good musicians.
His views as a Communist are now tempered given the breakdown of that regime, and his music isn’t completely respected; neither was he as a person. Soviet pianist Heinrich Neuhaus called him the “poor man’s Prokoviev or Shostakovich.” Sviatoslav Richter, another great Soviet pianist, said he was a “true intellectual, someone who was genuinely cultured, but as a person he was compromised, and deeply unpleasant.”
I’m not sure that a man’s life and his art can be separated. Superficially, maybe; I’m sure I’ll continue to teach Kabalevsky’s music – but I need to think about whether I can embrace it whole-heartedly. My own grandparents fled to Canada in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and it was only towards the end of his life that my grandfather was able to speak of the horrors he witnessed and experienced. Others have a similar reaction to Wagner’s music because of his anti-Semitic views and will have nothing to do with his music.
This is a weighty issue that has no logical end – and in fact is far too big for a simple blog post. But to what extent do we allow an artist’s political/religious/lifestyle views affect our conception or enjoyment of his art? Does it matter at all? Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? These thoughts will certainly be clanking around in my head for days to come.
Vladimir Ashkenazy defected from the Soviet Union in the 50s. I’ll let him have the final word with what is, for me, the definitive interpretion of Chopin’s opus 9 no. 1.
Information from kabalevsky.org and Kabalevsky: Musical Views by David Forrest. Thank you, David McKay and Erwin Poelstra.