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American Balalaika Symphony
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Featured Composers

Emmerich Kálmán

Emmerich (Imre) Kálmán Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán is best remembered for his operettas. He was born in 1882 in the Hungarian town of Siófok on Lake Balaton. He began studying piano as a teenager but was sidelined by stress injury in his hands. To continue pursuing his musical interests, he studied composition at the Budapest Academy of Music, where he was a fellow student of Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály. In 1907, Kalman was awarded the Franz Josef Prize of Budapest for a song cycle. Around the same time, he had his first success with operetta, which led him to Vienna. During his years there, he composed more than eight operettas, often mixing elements of Viennese and Hungarian musical styles with libretti of Hungarian themes. Because of the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, he left Vienna for Paris and then the United States, where he obtained citizenship. About a decade later, Kalman returned to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1953.

Dmitry Kabalevsky

In their November 2004 concert, the American Balalaika Symphony accompanied Russian pianist Natalia Bogdanova in a performance of the 3rd piano concerto by Dmitry Kabalevsky.

Soviet composer Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky was born in St. Petersburg in December 1904 and began piano studies at an early age. In 1918, he moved to Moscow, where—after an abortive attempt to become a painter—he spent three years as a silent-movie pianist before entering the Moscow Conservatory in 1925.

After several years of studying piano under Alexander Goldenweiser and composition with Nikolai Myaskovsky, Kabalevsky graduated in 1929 and won his first significant acclaim in Russia that same year with his first piano concerto. In 1932, Kabalevsky helped found the Union of Soviet Composers and held a series of high offices in that organization for the rest of his life. In this capacity, he was a leading proponent of "socialist realism" in music and, as the senior editor of Sovietskaya Muzyka from 1940 to 1946, became something of an arbiter of official taste in musical affairs.

Kabalevsky's own compositional style is rooted firmly in the 19th-century tradition of Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov and is marked by folk-like melodic simplicity, traditional forms, tonal harmony, and rich, skillful orchestration. On the other hand, his fundamental conservatism is leavened by episodes of impish good humor, clever turns of phrase, and a pervasive joie de vivre .Nonetheless, Kabalevsky only narrowly escaped formal condemnation in the 1948 Soviet government crackdown on musical "modernism" that humbled Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian. During his entire career, Kabalevsky was renowned as a teacher and a strong supporter of musical education for children.

In the early 1930s, he joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory and became a full professor of composition in 1940. His collected works include a large number of teaching pieces, music for young pianists and other instrumentalists, and compositions for children's chorus. Moreover, between 1948 and 1952, he wrote a trilogy of concertos specifically dedicated to "Soviet Youth"—his violin concerto, the first cello concerto, and the third piano concerto. The last of these received its U.S. premiere on Nov. 20, 2004 by the American Balalaika Symphony.

Kabalevsky also enjoyed considerable success as an opera composer during the Soviet era, although only the overture to his Colas Breugnon (1938)—based on a novel by Romain Rolland—is well known in the West. His chamber music and instrumental works—four symphonies, eight concertos, and a half-dozen patriotic scores for chorus and orchestra—are less often played outside Russia, but his suite, The Comedians, drawn from incidental music he wrote for a children's play in 1938, appears occasionally on "pops" concert programs. Dmitry Kabalevsky composed the last of his musical works in the late 1970s and died in Moscow in February 1987.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

Louis Moreau GottschalkLouis Moreau Gottschalk became the first well-known American concert pianist and the first American composer to be widely recognized in Europe. He was born to a Jewish businessman from London and a white Creole Haitian in 1829 in what is now the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he was influenced at an early age by Afro-Caribbean melodies and rhythms. As a young prodigy at the piano, Gottschalk made his musical debut at the old St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans when he was only 11. Then, in 1842, his parents took him to Europe for further study of the piano, and although he was rejected by the Paris Conservatory, he was accepted as a pupil by a succession of prominent piano tutors, including Charles Hallé (1819–1895), later the founder of the Hallé Orchestra in England.

Gottschalk soon attracted favorable notice from Chopin and Liszt—the latter calling him "the Alcibiades of the piano"—and commenced a promising career as a concert artist in Europe. However, his own early compositions, based largely on Creole material, were less successful on the Continent, and perhaps for this reason, he returned to the United States in 1853 to make his living as a barnstorming concert pianist, touring extensively in the United States, Canada, and Cuba with a repertoire that consisted largely of his own pieces.

As a result of his extensive concertizing, exhibitionism, and flamboyant lifestyle, Gottschalk had become a major figure on the American musical scene by the early 1860s. He remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, freed three slaves he had inherited, and wrote an occasional piece for piano, "The Union," based on patriotic airs. Unfortunately, his growing status as a musical idol of "rock-star" proportions eventually led to the demise of his career in the United States. In 1865, he became enmeshed in an amorous liaison with a young female seminarian in California and was forced to flee the country to avoid prosecution.

Gottschalk spent the rest of his life touring - and still writing music - in South America, where he was a tremendous success. Alas, stricken with a ruptured appendix at a concert in Rio de Janeiro in 1869—reportedly while playing a piece called Morte! ("Death!") - he died only a few weeks later at the age of 40.

Not surprisingly, most of Gottschalk's many compositions are for piano, both two and four hands, but he also left two operas and a sprinkling of orchestral works, most notably a programmatic symphony called A Night in the Tropics that is occasionally heard today. Gottschalk himself claimed the title of "the Chopin of the Creoles," and his music draws heavily on the Creole, Caribbean, and Afro-American motifs and syncopations that prefigure jazz and ragtime. In this regard, he was one of the first composers to introduce American folk themes into 19th-century art music. His piano works, such as "The Banjo," "Pasquinade," "Bamboula," and "The Dying Poet" are often strongly rhythmic—with strings of repeated notes—and by turns highly virtuoistic, flamboyant, and mawkishly sentimental. Nowadays, Gottschalk is seldom considered a "serious" composer, but he remains consistently interesting, enjoyable, and often great fun to listen to.

American music-lovers are probably most familiar with Gottschalk's music from the ballet, Cakewalk , adapted from a selection of his piano pieces by composer Hershey Kay (1919–1961) for the American Ballet Theater in 1951. Then, in 1957, Kay re-orchestrated an early version of Gottschalk's Grande Tarantelle for piano and orchestra, Op. 67, and in that form, it has become a popular concert piece that was be included in the American Balalaika Symphony's 2004/2005 season.

Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-SaënsWhile seldom ranked with the likes of Mozart and Beethoven as a "great" composer, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921) stands high enough in the second tier to ensure lasting acclaim for his well-crafted, tuneful, and approachable works. Born in Paris in 1835 the son of a civil servant, Saint-Saëns had already shown extraordinary musical gifts by the age of three and was composing when he was six. He entered the Paris Conservatory in 1848 to study organ and composition, and after graduation in 1853, he began his professional career—like many of his French musical contemporaries—as an organist. After four years at the Church of Ste. Merri in Paris, Saint-Saëns became the titulaire at the prestigious Church of the Madeleine, where he served for 20 years (1857–1877).

Praised lavishly by Berlioz and strongly influenced by Franz Liszt, whom he met in 1852, Saint-Saëns quickly established himself in France as both a virtuoso pianist and a successful composer. By 1861, when he became professor of piano at the famous Niedermeyer School in Paris, he had already written several symphonies and the first of his five piano concertos. In 1868, Saint-Saëns began work on his best-known opera, Samson et Delila , followed by such familiar tone poems as Le Rouet D'Omphale ("Omphale's Spinning Wheel," 1872) and the Danse Macabre (1874). Other works familiar to today's concert-goers include his Symphony # 3 in C minor (with organ obbligato, 1886), the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Havanaise—both for violin and orchestra (1863 and 1887)—and his Carnival of the Animals for two pianos and orchestra (1886).

By 1870, Saint-Saëns was in steady demand as a concert artist on both the piano and organ, and he concertized widely all over the world, eventually even visiting the United States in 1906 and 1916. A deeply-cultured man and an obsessive autodidact, he made a serious study of science and wrote books on philosophy, literature, painting, and theater. Indulging his passion for travel, he spent considerable time in the French colony of Algeria, where he was inspired to compose a number of works rooted in North African local color, such as his Suite Algérienne (1880) and his Africa fantasy for piano and orchestra (1891). Saint-Saëns died in Algeria in 1921, still firmly established as the "Grand Old Man" of French classical music.

From an early age, Saint-Saëns composed prolifically and seemingly without effort. "I produce music like an apple tree produces apples," he once said famously, and popular success came early and remained with him for his whole life. Perhaps for this reason, passion and struggle are relatively rare in his music. Instead, his works are characterized by their elegance, clarity, balance, formal structure, and straightforward beauty. They sound well. As a conservative musician in the 19th-century mold, Saint-Saëns was not one to plumb philosophical depths or to explore new musical territory. In a telling incident, he was so outraged at the first performance of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913 that he walked out of what was perhaps the most seminal event in the history of 20th-century music. Nonetheless, the best examples of his oeuvre remain beloved staples of the classical repertoire today.

During his long career, Saint-Saëns composed in virtually all the musical forms of his era, including opera, symphonic and chamber music, piano pieces, works for chorus and orchestra, and a small quantity of organ music still heard occasionally. In addition to his five concertos for piano and orchestra, he wrote three violin concertos and two for 'cello. Of the piano concertos, the best known is his Concerto # 2 in G minor (1868), which will be performed by the American Balalaika Symphony this season.

Balalaika Music Samples

These sites provide a flavor of music performed on Russian folk instruments like the balalaika, domra, and bayan. The selections range from folk to chamber music to symphonic music. You will find segments of songs as well as entire pieces, mostly in mp3 format. Let us know if there are other good examples on the web of music performed on balalaikas and domras that you think should appear on this page. Also, we will soon feature some of our own recordings.

Balalaika Orchestras Today

Since the late 19th century, when Vasily Andreyev introduced the modern concept of a Russian Folk Orchestra composed of balalaikas and domras, these orchestras have been founded and continue to thrive in cities throughout the world. This page connects you to some of the balalaika orchestras around the world. Many more exist in Russia and other East European countries. There are also many fine smaller Russian folk ensembles that you can hear in the US, Russia, and elsewhere. You can connect with some of these in the "orchestras" secton of the BDAA website.

While you're here, check out the link to the Ossipov Orchestra website below. It is a new website for one of the best-known Russian Folk Orchestras in the world. And for a short history of the balalaika and balalaika orchestras, see The Magic of Balalaika Music.

United States



Russian Music & Culture

Here you can connect to a few broader-themed sites related to the music and culture of Russia. Let us know about other sites with useful information in this category. Russian Entertainment Database

DC Area Web Resources

These items should be of particular interest to our own local community, here in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

Russian Washington DC Web Portal
Links of the Russian Bazaar, Washington DC

For a short history of the balalaika and balalaika orchestras, see The Magic of Balalaika Music.