Vissarion Shebalin

1902 - 1963



Shebalin was born in Omsk, where his parents were school teachers. He studied in the musical college in Omsk, and was also enrolled in the Institute of Agriculture. He was 20 years old when, following the advice of his professor, he went to Moscow to show his first compositions to Reinhold Glière and Nikolai Myaskovsky. Both composers thought very highly of his compositions. Shebalin graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1928. His diploma work was the 1st Symphony, which the author dedicated to his professor Nikolai Myaskovsky. Many years later his fifth and last symphony was dedicated to Myaskovsky's memory.

In the 1920s Shebalin was a member of the Association for Contemporary Music(ACM); he was a participant of the informal circle of Moscow musicians known as "Lamm's group", which gathered in the apartment of Pavel Lamm, a professor from the Moscow Conservatory.

After graduating from Moscow Conservatory, he worked there as a professor, and in 1935 became also a head of the composition class at the Gnessin State Musical College. In the very difficult years of 1942-48 he was a director of the Moscow Conservatory and the art director of the Central Musical School in Moscow. He fell victim to the Zhdanov purge of artists in 1948 and fell into obscurity afterwards. Among his students were Ester Mägi, Veljo Tormis, Lydia Auster, Edison Denisov, Grigory Frid, Tikhon Khrennikov, Karen Khachaturian, Aleksandra Pakhmutova, and others.

Shebalin was one of the founders of and the chairman of the board (1941–1942) of the Union of Soviet Composers, and one of the most cultured and erudite composers of his generation; his serious intellectual style and a certain academic approach to composition make him close to Myaskovsky. In 1951, he was awarded the Stalin Prize. Shebalin was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, who dedicated a string quartet (No. 2) to him.

In 1953, Shebalin suffered a stroke, followed by another stroke in 1959, which impaired most of his language capabilities.[4] Despite that, just a few months before his death from a third stroke in 1963, he completed his fifth symphony, described by Shostakovich as "a brilliant creative work, filled with highest emotions, optimistic and full of life."

Shebalin died on 29 May 1963 in Moscow. He was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery near his professors and colleagues.

His son Dmitri (1930-2013) was the violist of the Borodin Quartet for 43 years.


" What have I got to do with music except make music? How could I consider those who see me as a mere musician as friends, especially when I don’t find any trace in them of a desire to join another circle embracing new ways of thinking and feeling (…) Bach lived for God and music, and nothing more, whereas we’ve lost all our gods and music is as hard to grasp as a sparrow’s tail ” 
(excerpt from a letter to his wife, 7-9 March, 1926).

" Now, my boy, we’re going to be working together. Are you afraid? (…) You see, I have to warn you… We’re going to start with the Central School of Music, then (…) it’ll be the Conservatory; so far, so good. But when we go our separate ways and you’re out on your own, wanting to compose music as you - and only you - understand it, you’ll have to be prepared to suffer very fierce criticism that will go on for a long time. So I’m going to ask that question once again: you’re not afraid, are you? ” 
(first conversation between Shebalin and his new student, Nikolaï Karetnikov, 1943)

Vissarion Shebalin found glory and honour posthumously, alas, and then within a very limited circle of admirers. Yet he was an outstanding teacher of composition, the best after Myaskovsky, his own master. A teacher at Moscow Conservatory, and the Gnessin and Central Schools of Music, he trained the elite of Russian composers of the time: Edison Denisov, Sofia Goubaidulina, Sergei Slonimsky, Roman Ledeniov, Nikolai Karetnikov, Karen Khatchatourian, Boris Tchaikovsky, Tikhon Khrennikov, Grigori Fried, Alexei Mouravliov, Arno Babadjanian, Lazar Sarian, Velio Tormis, as well as some of those who composed what was known as the "Soviet chanson”, such as Alexandra Pakhmutova, Boris Mokrussov, Evgeny Ptitchkine, Oscar Felsman. Later, Shebalin had the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch, as well as pianist Lev Naoumov, one of the 2 0th century’s outstanding teachers.

Taken from the standpoint of the early 21st century, Shebalin was obviously the best Director the Moscow Conservatory ever had in the history of Soviet Russia. Having shaken off the yoke of traditional Russian despotism, Shebalin was always, in the words of composer and musicologist Boris Assafiev, "music’s attentive escort”. He was much respected and admired for his superior moral qualities, even by his enemies.

Yet in spite of this, Shebalin’s reputation remains discreet, and his work has been eclipsed by his teaching reputation. The composer Roman Ledeniov spoke pertinently "of the dizziness of the extraordinary technical requirements” felt by many of his colleagues, a dizziness that made them forget the actual music. Yet his symphonic works and his chamber music, romances and choruses abound Vissarion Shebalin, Moscow 1942 in unexplored splendours. His best works are a blend of exquisite taste and perfect thematic harmony and attest to an outstanding technique and great open- mindedness, for Shebalin’s music shows a wide variety of influences.

Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin was born in Omsk, in the Akmolinsk area, beyond the Ural mountains, on 29 May 1902 (11 June on the Gregorian calendar). His father Yakov Shebalin, who came from a farming family from the province of Tomsk, taught mathematics, first in various secondary schools, then in a school for surgeons’ assistants, before ending his career in an agricultural school. His mother, Apollinaria Shebalina (maiden name Kalouguina), the daughter of a village priest, taught in a parish school. Both of Shebalin’s parents were utterly devoted to music, especially his father who conducted the college choir.

In the early 20th century the new railway brought crowds of settlers from the European part of Russia to Omsk. The famous Soviet poet, Leonid Martinov, friend and fellow pupil of Shebalin, recalls, "Sometimes the voice of the muezzin calling from the minaret would mingle with the sounds of the bell ringing in the Lutheran church…”. Omsk’s geographical situation so far away from everywhere did not mean it was culturally isolated. It had its own Philharmonic Society, a sister branch of the Russian Music Society. According to Shebalin’s memoirs, there were not many symphony concerts, though chamber music, on the other hand, was extremely well represented, as demonstrated by the ample repertoire ranging from the Viennese classics to quartets by Debussy and Ravel, all competently performed. The rare symphony concerts did however enable Shebalin to discover Beethoven, Schubert and Tchaikovsky, whose Symphony n° 5 moved him immensely. " The first good symphony orchestra I heard was Czech (…), and was conducted by [Vaslav] Talik. The Czech artists performed works by Smetana and Dvorak; their performance made a deep and lasting impression on me”.

The composer’s earliest experience of music came from classes in piano at the Russian Society of Music, amateur concerts at the Perm Secondary School for Boys, which had its own orchestra and choir, and family musical evenings including those at the Shebalins’ home. The school literary club also helped to form the young man’s personality and tastes, and in no small way. This was not entirely because Shebalin wrote poetry either; his understanding and grasp of words and their meaning would later win him the admiration of his peers. Works by Catullus, Ovid, and Sappho, as well as the classical and modern poets, were all part of Shebalin’s literary "diet”. (Incidentally, he read Latin fluently).

In 1919, after he’d finished studying at college, Shebalin won a place at the Academy of Agriculture, the only large school in Omsk. But by sheer chance, the world was deprived of a future obscure agronomist, for Shebalin fell seriously ill and had to end his studies abruptly. Instead of doing his military service (he was not yet old enough to be called up), the composer did the equivalent of what would nowadays be called Voluntary Service Overseas, and became librarian of the Siberian State Opera. This was when he decided to start composing. In 1921 he began studying under Mikhail Nevitov at Omsk Music College. Nevitov, a pupil of Reinhold Glière, was an extremely talented teacher and a cultivated man with a vast range of knowledge. "It was he who introduced me to music as a profession and taught me how to work with care and precision.”. Nevitov revealed Wagner’s music, that of Richard Strauss and even Schoenberg to Shebalin, as well as the Russian composers of the time such as Alexander Scriabin, Anatoli Alexandrov, Alexander Krein, and above all, Nikolai Myaskovsky. The latter’s music aroused Shebalin’s admiration so much that he entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1923.

His first meeting with the composer took place in the autumn of 1922, when he submitted his piano sonata along with some romances and various other pieces, to the master. "He clearly has the makings of an excellent composer with a real sense of harmony (and a subtle one at that) and form, with a preference for melody and some really ingenious procedures in his manner of composing - all this acquired over a very short period - that point to a highly unusual talent.” The knowledge Shebalin acquired In Myaskovsky’s classes, which he followed from 1923 to 1928, were vast and encyclopaedic. In an article covering the master’s 60th birthday, published in the Sovietskaya Mousyka review (N°4, 1941), Shebalin outlines the basic principles of Myaskovsky’s teaching, which we should add, form the basis of his own triumphant teaching career. Above all, it was one’s Gradually Shebalin became first a colleague, then a friend of Myaskovsky. The composer attended Pavel Lamm’s parties regularly, where new Russian works would be discussed or performed (in the form of transcriptions for four or eighthanded piano). Shebalin was often invited to the house of Maxime Goubé, an amateur singer; he met the singer’s daughter Alice here, and in 1925 they were married. Shebalin’s Symphony n° 1 was given its first performance on 13 November 1926 in the large concert hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic, with the orchestra under the baton of Constantin Saradjev. This was the young composer’s first major professional success. During his time at the Conservatory, Shebalin found another friend in the guise of Dmitri Shostakovich; later he became friends with Ivan Sollertinsky, a remarkable musicographer. Shebalin adored Shostakovich’s music right from the start, but at the same time he warned young composers against copying Shostakovich’s style blindly by using banal themes. He was equally passionate about Prokofiev’s music. In 1928, with his new diploma under his belt, Shebalin decided to go on to a doctorate. He began his teaching career at the Moscow Conservatory during the same year, and it was whilst he was there that his musical preferences became clearer. "Through their originality of form, the deep underlying logic and freshness of their harmony (…) plus their impeccable polyphony, works of his such as the Symphony [n° 1], the String Quartet [n° 1], the String Trio, two piano sonatas, numerous romances and other pieces all display a quite remarkable compositional technique”, wrote Myaskovsky.

In the late 1920s, the composer enlarged his musical field by composing for the stage and screen. He worked with some famous Soviet stage directors, notably with two founders of so-called "artistic theatre”, Alexander Tairov and Vsevolod Meyerhold. He composed the music for eight of the latter’s plays though the last one was never performed. The first show ever to be performed to music by Shebalin, Illia Selvinsky’s Komandarm 2, opened on 24 July 1929; whereas the direction aroused strong criticism, Shebalin’s music received unanimous praise - in fact the composer even included some extracts from his Symphony n°3. But The Lady of the Camellias (1934) after Dumas junior was the most successful of his incidental musical works. Meyerhold’s name was linked to Shebalin’s for his earlier stage success, but criticism of the famous director was also levelled at all The Moscow State Conservatory (1934). In his article Meyerhold against Meyerhold-style Formalism, the director takes up the defence of "his” composer, "The idea that Shebalin was generally thought to be the composer responsible for formalism in music made me extremely angry, because I know this man has given the theatre works that will remain engraved in the memory (…), such as no other composer has achieved. If any of my pupils or followers or adepts asked me, I’d tell them to turn to Shebalin for the music for their shows because he is absolutely unequalled in the field.” With Shebalin a symphonic work undergoes some kind of transfiguration through poetry. Three Poems by Sergei Essenin for voice and piano become in the composer’s own words "preparatory studies” for the Symphony no.2; the dramatic Lenin Symphony for narrator, soloists, choir and orchestra was composed in 1932, and was followed by the Symphony no.4 in 1935, devoted to the heroes of the storming of Perekop (one of the Red Army’s successful moves during the Civil War) and including songs of the time. Symphony no.3 has already been mentioned in connection with the show Komandarm 2. During the 1930s, Shebalin’s success became international, thanks to a performance of his Second Symphony in Prague (orchestra conducted by O. Jeremeiach) at the music festival of the International Society of Modern Music. It is noteworthy that in the numerous interviews given by Prokofiev, whenever he spoke of Shebalin, it was always in the most flattering terms, especially of the Quartets no.2 (1934), no.3 and no.4 (1940). Here is an excerpt from an interview with Prokofiev that appeared in the Gazeta Polska (1936): "Amongst composers of his generation, Shebalin is the one I’d give the major award to. I consider his Quartet no.2 (…) to be the best of its kind”. Again during the thirties, Shebalin participated actively in the newly founded Union of Soviet Composers. His sights were neither on personal interest nor glory; the overall interests of music and composers were closer to his heart, just as had been the case ten years earlier when he’d been a member of the Association of Modern Music. It so happened that he found glory nevertheless, for although totally opposed to the so-called "ultra-revolutionary” views of several members of this association, Shebalin was even more fiercely opposed to the militant ignorance of the members of the Association of Proletarian Musicians who out of indulgence towards some superficial theories about class, tried to deny several outstanding musical works in both the classical and modern domains. Both organisations had been dissolved in 1932, and were now replaced by the Union of Soviet Composers. But in1948, the "proletarian musicians”, the ones holding the reins of the Union, launched a campaign in the press against Shebalin and attacked him at composers’ meetings. Shebalin rose to several managerial posts in the Union, including that of Head of the Moscow branch, but his attitude was decidedly different from that of his inquisitors. He sought to organise lively, animated discussions about contemporary works, to bring support to the best works of art belonging to the nation and to help his fellow-composers, all his activities being entirely voluntary and never paid.

During the thirties, one of his numerous activities was that of restoring or finishing unfinished classical Russian works. This is how he came to complete Mussorgsky’s Sorotchintsky’s Fair, but above all, he reconstituted Mickhail Glinka’s Symphony on Two Russian Themes by using the composer’s original notes and the existing musical excerpts (the introduction and exposition). Nikolai Myaskovsky wrote, "The Soviet listener owes the pleasure of hearing this symphony in a finished state (…) thanks to Shebalin’s extraordinary art, his intuitive style and very real talent for penetrating the secret of the composer’s intentions”. On 21 June 1941 Shebalin was President of the Minsk Commission for State Examinations for Composers, in Belorussia. He was awarded the title of Doctor of Art Criticism on the same day. The next day war broke out. On the third day of war, Shebalin risked his life by creeping into the Conservatory to complete the administrative formalities that would enable recent diplomas to be validated. Armed with his briefcase and nothing else (all his personal effects had been destroyed when his hotel was bombed), and with all the railway lines blocked, he crossed the enemy lines and by his own ingenuity escaped being trapped, all this entirely on his own. It was this thanks to him and him alone that the 1941 winners of the diploma could receive their actual certificates once the war was over.

In July 1941, the composer engaged in the popular militia. He’d been acquainted with the throes of war well before the others so was ready to face his fate. "My dear Lenusha, this is perhaps my last chance to send you a letter (…). Whatever happens (…), be ready to take over as head of the family. (…) If I have to lose my life, I’m going to force myself to do it in a way that will be useful to my fatherland, and will not leave me covered in shame”, he wrote in a heart-rending letter to his wife, evacuated to Sverdlovsk. He was composing some marches for symphony orchestra at the time, plus some songs and the Russian Overture. He stayed in Moscow until October 1941, then after a governmental decision, was evacuated to Sverdlovsk (Erkaterinbourg), where he remained for almost a year. Since the circumstances were propitious (the town had its own theatre for musical comedy shows), he composed a light opera, The Ambassador’s Fiancé, then set to orchestrating, adapting and adding an act to the classical 19th century Ukrainian opera, The Zaporogue of the Danube by Goulak-Artiomovsky. It was also here that he conceived the light opera The Taming of the Shrew, after Shakespeare’s play, which then became the basis of a comic opera he wrote in the 1950s. Again, in Sverdlovsk he composed the Quartet no.5 around some Slav tunes, as well as the cycle of Five romances after some poems by Heine, using his own translation of the poems.

In autumn 1942 Shebalin was appointed Director of the Moscow Conservatory and of the Central School of Music. The six years he held the post at the Conservatory are now considered to represent its Golden Age, for he achieved the seemingly impossible. During the years of hardships due to wartime, not only did he manage to engage or bring back the very best teachers out of evacuation, he also improved the curriculum and above all the atmosphere in the Conservatory. He attached great importance to teaching that would stand the test of time without interruption. At the Central School of Music he handpicked a small group of budding prodigies for his composition class, including Nikolai Karetnikov, Sergei Slonimsky, Alexandra Pakhmutova, etc. At the Conservatory, he gave musicology a new lease of life by supporting the research office and instigating seminars devoted to studying sources and texts. Not all the reforms he advocated were put into action, notably the one concerning the appointment of Italian teachers for the singing department at the Conservatory.

The note he wrote after his return from Italy to extol the idea fell into the hands of the apparatchiks of culture in that sad year of 1948. His behaviour in this terrible year was worthy of a soldier’s courage on the battlefield. The decree issued by the Central Committee of the Soviet Union Communist Party accused the major Soviet composers of formalism, adulation of the West, and deviation from the Party line in the training of young composers. "Shebalin, as Director of the Conservatory, Shostakovich,” who taught there at Shebalin’s request, and Prokofiev were amongst the first to undergo the impact of these accusations. Shebalin defended both his students and his fellow-teachers, and tried to soften the harsh blows dealt by the Soviet ideology, but the price he paid for these episodes was a stroke at the age of 51, leaving works unwritten and thoughts unformulated, and curtailing his short - all too short - life.

In autumn of the same year he was dismissed from his post at the Conservatory, where he only returned in 1951. Ivan Petrov, a remarkable military band conductor and friend of Myaskovsky and Shostakovich offered "asylum” to Shebalin at the Military Conductors’ Institute. According to the composer’s niece, Oxana Jelokhovtseva, the Central Committee summoned Petrov to ask why he "hadn’t sought advice” before taking this kind of initiative. Petrov bravely replied, "Usually I only ask advice when I’ve got doubts about what I’m doing”. Another detail says a lot about Shebalin, too: he implored Petrov to think about the unpleasant consequences of his decision. But the necessary department note was signed instantly. When he got home, Shebalin could not hold back his tears… The Sonata for violin and viola, the Quartets no.6 and no.7 and the Trio for piano, violin, and cello are amongst Shebalin’s loveliest works from the late 40s. After 1948, the composer attacked a new genre, choral music. It would be naive to think this new departure in his work was provoked by Party directives (the Jdanov decree called upon composers to write music on texts taken from folklore), but The Five Choruses on poems by Pushkin, op.42 are a masterpiece of their kind and it would be hard to produce anything simpler, yet what innovation, what freshness they display! On 14 September 1953 Shebalin suffered a stroke. His right side was paralysed and he could no longer speak. In his periods of remission he continued to work with his students and wrote his scores with his left hand. During the last years of his life he composed the Quartets no.8 and no.9, the Trilogy of Sonatas for violin, viola and cello, op.51, some choral works and some incidental and film music.

The first performance of The Taming of the Shrew was given in October 1955, with piano accompaniment, by the Soviet Opera troupe from the Central Hall of Artists in Moscow. Its first real stage production took place in 1957 at Koubichev (Samara). In 1961, Shebalin took up his Symphony no.4 again, then finished the Fifth Symphony just one year later.

The composer died in Moscow on 29 May 1963.

Mikhail Segelman