Dmitry Kabalevsky

Russian-to-English orthography being what it is, there is always scope for confusion for how one renders the Russian Дми́трий into English. Shostakovich, for example, is almost always rendered as ‘Dmitri‘ (see Wikipedia, for one). But Bortnyansky usually is spelled as ‘Dmitry’, closing with a y, not an i (again, see Wikipedia for proof). So does Kabalevsky get a Dmitry or a Dmitri?!

The record companies do not exactly help in this matter! Here are two CD covers selected more or less at random:

So Naxos thinks it’s Dmitry with a y. But David Oistrakh’s record company would beg to differ:

There’s not much to be done about a difference of orthographic opinion in such matters, other than to turn to the house ‘bible’ to determine the issue once and for all: in this case, The New Grove unequivocally states his name is Kabalevsky, Dmitry Borisovich. My edition of the New Grove was published before Dmitry/Dmitri had died, so one imagines it might be considered authoritative on the matter, as they could have asked the man himself what he preferred.

The New Grove entry gets us into another problem, however: do we use Russian patronymics or not? Again, with Shostakovich we tend not to: everyone calls him Dmitri Shostakovich, not Dmitry Dmitryevich Shostakovich. The patronymic (or ‘middle’) name gets dropped in his case: even the New Grove puts it into brackets, indicating ‘optional’.

The same dictionary publishers do not, however, put Kabalevsky’s Borisovich in brackets: they therefore think the patronymic is required, not optional. Yet most users regard it as optional -though they are hardly an authoritative source! Wiki’s article on the man is its usual confusing self on the issue, too: the opening words of the article list all three names; but the article title and URL remain stubbornly patronymic-less.

On the whole, I prefer not to have to type too much if it’s possible to get away without doing so -and, in the matter of Cyrillic to English translations and transliterations, I don’t always regard The New Grove as definitive on the subject. I spell Shostakovich’s first name as Dmitri, for example, where The New Grove insists on Dmitry. My experience of CD covers for the man makes it clear that the i-form is more common here (in the UK) than the y-form, so it would be perverse to catalogue it in the ‘minority fashion’, just because of a dictionary listing. I similarly tend to omit the patronymic from Russian names if most CD covers do, or if common usage suggests it is OK to do so.

So: cutting the long and tedious story short, in my collection, Kabalevsky is spelled as Dmitry, with a y. But he’s never spelled with the ‘Borisovich’ bit, as it’s unnecessary, uncommonly used in the West, and doesn’t help to distinguish him from anyone else. Plain Dmitry Kabalevsky it is, therefore.

Phew! With all that said, let’s just mention that he was born in 1904 and died in 1987. He was thus contemporaneous with the likes of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Unlike them, however, he embraced Soviet Realism and became a fully signed-up member of the Communist Party in 1940. He therefore avoided being reprimanded for formalism, in the way many of his fellow composers were. The New Grove calls him an ‘always politically conscious composer’: meaning, I guess, that he knew how to toady-up to the Authorities, and was accordingly forever the recipient of prizes, awards and privileges (such as the Lenin Prize of 1972, and his ability to travel abroad when hardly anyone else was permitted to do so). You might consider him the Soviet Union’s ‘house composer’, in other words, whereas composers like Shostakovich were merely tolerated, not embraced.

Musicologists will therefore probably regard much of his music as rather dull and unimaginitive… but I find it has its charms and is never less than attractive.

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Music Plays from my collection
(since January 9th 2021)

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