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Nicolas Nabokov (Composer, Arranger)

Born: April 4/17, 1903 (Gregorian/Julian) - near Lubcha, Novogrudok district, Minsk region, Russia
Died: April 6, 1978 - New York, NY, USA

The distinguished Russian-born American composer, Nicolas (actually, Nlkolai) Nabokov [Nabokoff] was a scion of a distinguished Russian family; his uncle was a liberal member of the short-lived Duma (Russian parliament); the famous writer Vladimir Nabokov was his 1st cousin.. Nabokov's parents divorced while he was still an infant, but this did not prevent the family from enjoying a life of privilege. Nabokov was well educated from an early age by private tutors (he was fluent in at least four languages), but did not show a strong interest in music until age 11. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, Nabokov moved to the Crimea with his family in 1918 and received his first formal instruction in music composition from Vladimir Rebikov in St. Petrsburg and Yalta. In 1919, the family left Russia to Germany. Nabokov continued his music studies at the Stuttgart Conservatory (1920-1922), and with Paul Juon and Ferruccio Busoni at the Berlin Hoscschule für Musik (1922-1923). In 1923, he joined the growing community of Russian émigrés in Paris and over the next three years attained the equivalence of a Bachelors and then a Masters degree from the Sorbonne.

In the late 1920's and early 1930's, Nicolas Nabokov taught private lessons in music, language, and literature in Paris and Berlin. During this period he began to expand his many professional and personal friendships. He was introduced to Diaghilev, who commissioned him to write his first major score, the ballet-oratorio Ode: Méditation sur la majesté de Dieu (1927), for the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. He also wrote his first symphony, Lyrical Symphony in 1931.

Two years later, in 1933, at the invitation of the Barnes Foundation, Nicolas Nabokov moved to the USA as a lecturer on western music. In 1934, he wrote what he called the "first truly American ballet," Union Pacific, on a theme presented to him by Archibald MacLeish. From 1936 to 1941, he headed the Music Department at Wells College in Aurora, in New York. He then took a position as the Director of Music at St. John's College in Annapolis, in Maryland (1941-1944). He continued to write symphonies and other pieces while in these positions, and also published a number of articles and essays in magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and New Republic. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1939. In 1944, he traveled to occupied Germany as civilian cultural advisor in a series of positions with the American Military Government (Berlin). He returned to the USA in 1947 to teach at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (1947-1952). While at the Peabody he participated in seminars at several Universities, then became the Director of Music at the American Academy in Rome from 1950 to 1951.

In 1951, Nicolas Nabokov became Secretary General of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a position he held until 1963. Living in Paris and New York, he gained widespread acclaim for planning and organizing numerous international conferences on politics, science, and the arts. His series of music festivals: Masterpieces of the XXth Century (Paris, 1952); Music in our Time (Rome, 1954); Eastern and Western Musical Traditions (Venice, 1956); East-West Music Encounter (Tokyo, 1961); and European and Indian Music Traditions (New Delhi, 1963), were some of the largest and most important music events of the time. Nicolas Nabokov continued to compose his own music while heading the CCF, scoring Stephen Spender's libretto for the opera Rasputin's End in 1958 and writing Don Quixote for the New York City Ballet in 1966. He served as artistic director of the Berlin Music Festivals from 1963 to 1968.

After the CCF ceased functions in 1967 after revelations of secret CIA funding (of which Nicolas Nabokov denied any knowledge or influence) he took a series of lecturer positions at Princeton, the State University of New York at Buffalo (1970-1971), and at New York University (1972-1973). In 1970, he became resident composer at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Colorado. In 1971, he composed the opera Love's Labour's Lost, to a libretto by W. H. Auden based on Shakespeare's play. After leaving the Aspen Institute in 1973 he continued to lecture and write.

Nicolas Naabokov was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (since 1970), the Berlin Academy of Arts and Letters, the French Society of Composers, and Commander of the Grand Cross of Merit of the German Federal Republic. In addition to writing articles for various periodicals, he wrote a book of essays, Old Friends and New Music (Boston, 1951), and the volumes Igor Stravinsky (Berlin, 1964) and Bagazh: Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan (New York, 1975). At the time of his death, on April 6, 1978, of a heart attack following surgery, he was working on a third volume of memoirs. He was survived by his fourth wife, Dominique, whom he married in 1970, and three sons from previous marriages - Ivan, Alexander, and Peter. In his music, he adopted a cosmopolitan style, with an astute infusion of fashionable bitonality; in works of Russian inspiration, he reverted to melorhythms of Russian folk songs.


Dramatic: Operas:
The Holy Devil (1954-1958; Louisville, April 16, 1958; revised version as Der Tod des Grigorij Rasputin, Cologne, November 27, 1959)
Love's Labour's Lost (1970-1973; Brussels, February 7, 1973)

Ode: Méditation sur la majesté de Dieu, ballet-oratorio (1927; Paris, June 6, 1928)
La vie de Polichinelle (Paris, 1934)
Union Pacific (Philadelphia, April 6, 1934)
The Last Flower (1941)
Don Quixote (1966)
The Wanderer (1966)

3 symphoniess.: No. 1. Symphonie lyrique (Paris, February 16, 1930), No. 2, Sinfonia biblica (New York, January 2, 1941), and No. 3, A Prayer (New York, January 4. 1968)
Piano Concerto (1932)
Le Fiancé, overture (1934)
Flute Concerto (1948)
Cello Concerto, Les Hommages (Philadelphia, November 6, 1953)
Symphonic Variations (1967)
Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky for cello and orchestra (1968)

Serenata estiva for string quartet (1937)
Bassoon Sonata (1941)
Canzone, Introduzione, e Allegro for violin and piano (1950)
2 piano sonatas (1926, 1940), and other piano pieces

Job, oratorio for men's voices and orchestra (1933)
Collectionneur d'echos for soprano, bass, and 9 percussion instruments (1933)
The Return of Pushkin, elegy for soprano or tenor and orchestra (Boston, January 2, 1948)
America Was Promises, cantata for alto, baritone, and men's voices (NewYork, April 25, 1950)
Vita nuova for soprano, tenor, and orchestra (Boston, March 2, 1951)
Symboli chrestiani for baritone and orchestra (1953)
Quatre poèmes de Boris Pasternak for voice and piano (1961; arranged for voice and strings, 1969)
5 Poems by Anna Akhmatova for voice and orchestra (1964).

Source: Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians (1997); Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (April 2010)

Nicolas Nabokov: Short Biography | Arrangements/Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Links to other Sites

Nicolas Nabokov: An Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Nicolas Nabokov (Wikipedia)
Nicolas Nabokov (IMDB)


Nicolas Nabokov: Old Friends and New Music (memoir). (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951)
Nicolas Nabokov: Bagázh: Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan (New York: Atheneum, 1975)
"Nicolas Nabokov Papers, Biographical Sketch at the University of Texas" (Retrieved 2007-01-07)
Ian Wellens: Music on the Frontline: Nicolas Nabokov's Struggle against Cand Middlebrow Culture (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002)

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