Dmitry Kabalevsky: String Quartet no. 1 in Am, op. 8

performed by the Stenhammar Quartet, or below by the Glazunov Quartet

(cover image by Johannes Plenio)

At the beginning one does not expect much from this piece completed under the tutelage of Nikolay Myaskovsky on November 20, 1928; a study piece and nothing more, in accordance with the classical norm …

Eckhardt van den Hoogen

Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky was born on December 30, 1904 in Saint Petersburg. He showed a talent for and interest in music and the arts, and against his mathematician father’s wishes, entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1925 where he studied with, among others, Nikolai Myaskovsky. He began teaching at the conservatory in 1932, and became a professor there in 1939. Take that, papa.

He actually joined the communist party in 1940, and wrote at least some patriotic (i.e. Communist) music, and yet was still on Zhdanov’s blacklist  with his infamous decree in 1948. Apparently, the composer was connected enough to important people that his name was later removed. That being said, he was also apparently, notably, not nearly as adventurous as some of his contemporaries, like Prokofiev.

Wikipedia also tells us something outstandingly endearing about the man:

Perhaps Kabalevsky’s most important contribution to the world of music-making is 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.

He made quite a name for himself as an educator, which is, I feel, maybe one of the most notable legacies to leave, but Wiki outlines an interesting difference in the impression he left on local and international audiences: “In Russia, Kabalevsky is most noted for his vocal songs, cantatas, and operas while overseas he is known for his orchestral music.”

In total, he wrote nine stage works, four symphonies (among a handful of other symphonic works), four concertos for piano, one for violin, and two for cello. There are also two string quartets, chamber pieces for the violin and cello with piano accompaniment, and a large number of vocal/choral pieces, and works for solo piano.

The first string quartet dates from 1928. It is in four movements and has a duration of almost 30 minutes:

  1. Andante – Allegro moderato
  2. Vivace
  3. Andantino
  4. Allegro assai

In this piece, really from the get-go, we hear (okay, at least I hear) a French influence as sort of a façade, a dressing, over a Russian work, or perhaps the other way around. It’s fascinating to think that at this point, there really wasn’t much of a tradition of Russian string quartets, even less so in the 20th century. There were folks like Borodin and Tchaikovsky from the previous century, but this work comes before Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, or Shostakovich participated in the form.

This Frenchness is evident in the diaphanous, sighing figure that opens the work. This soft-breathed opening leads to a full-bodied first theme, and there doesn’t much seem to be a second theme, really. This idea permeates the entire first movement, just barely the longest of the quartet. Maybe they’re so complementary that I’m not picking up on the distinction. In any case, the development section manages to be turbulent and dramatic but without bombast or cacophony. The word ‘atmospheric’ seems like such a copout of a term, but while Hoogen above doesn’t see much to the piece, the young composer shows at least a captivating finesse in the texture and sound of the quartet. There are at times drone-like textures and harmonics that, even if you find the content boring, should get you through this first movement.

The vivace scherzo sounds much more diatonic and folksy. The opening theme may bring something like Dvorak’s ‘American’ quartet to mind, but the contrasting subject is much more like the round warmth of the first movement. This is, at least in the Stenhammar recording, the shortest of the four movements. That first theme is a galloping, exciting thing that the composer ensures doesn’t tire the audience. The trio seems to be derived directly from the scherzo material, just slowed or sanded down, softened. This movement, like the previous, also ends quietly.

The andantino third movement may at first just seem to be more of the same, but there are some darker passages here, even bordering on glimpses of the funereal, but not for long. Is this perhaps a theme-and-variations movement? Could be. I don’t know.

What we can be sure of is that the opening of the finale blasts away the soft close of the previous three movements. We also get the return of the folklike spirit that appeared in the scherzo. Folk music would apparently go on to be a continuing feature of Kabalevsky’s music. In fact, we get the themes of all the movements reappearing in this second-longest installment of the work. I suppose this could seem either sort of cop-out-ish, or like a solidly unifying feature of the work, depending on how inclined you are to enjoy it.

At the very least, it’s not a failure of a piece by any means, even if it’s not groundbreaking. There’s very little information about this work, and probably very few recordings (I think I may have only come across two, referenced here. Obviously, the composer, still very young here, would go on to do great things, but this is a solid first effort (of his only two) in the form. We also finally got around to seeing Kabalevsky on the blog, and will hopefully see more of him eventually.

There’s yet more Russian music to come, so please stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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