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An A – Z guide to Nicolas Nabokov

Who was Nicolas Nabokov? The Russian-born American composer had a huge impact on music and culture globally, but his name remains relatively unknown. He had friends and acquaintances in a variety of circles, whether his cousin the writer Vladimir, the poet Auden, or the choreographer Balanchine. He travelled across the world despite the dangers of the Cold War. His compositions ranged from ballets to operas, concertos to symphonies. This A to Z gives an idea of the amazing range of the composer’s life and work.

A — Auden

Nabokov met W.H. Auden during the Second World War and they remained close friends. Auden and his lover Chester Kallman wrote the libretto of Nabokov’s second opera, Love’s Labour’s Lost (1973), after Shakespeare’s comedy.

B — Balanchine

In the words of someone who knew them both, Nabokov and “Mr. B” were “like brothers” ever since they met in 1928, when they were both under Diaghilev’s tutelage. Their main collaboration was the ballet Don Quixote (1965), which remained in the repertory of the New York City Ballet for 13 seasons.


Nabokov “was not the sort of man that CIA security would have been happy about,” to quote as CIA agent who knew him well and collaborated with him. This biography shows exactly why and disposes once and for all of the insinuation that he was a “fixer.”

Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev by Valentin Alexandrovich Serov, 1909. ublic somain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev by Valentin Alexandrovich Serov, 1909. ublic somain via Wikimedia Commons.

D — Diaghilev

Nabokov was among the last young émigré musicians whose career was launched by the Ballets Russes, which premiered his ballet Ode in 1928. His writings include some of the most perceptive portraits of the great impresario, Sergei Diaghilev.

E — Emigration

Nabokov left Russia with his family in 1919, never to return except for two weeks in 1967 and an even briefer stay the following year. He once referred to émigrés as “the Third Estate of the twentieth century.”

F — Festivals

Some of Nabokov’s greatest achievements were the festivals he organized in the 1950s and 1960s as head of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, in Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and Delhi, and later as cultural adviser to Willy Brandt in Berlin. The 1964 Berlin Festival he organized on the contribution of blacks to world culture is now considered a landmark in this respect.

G — Germany

Like many upper-class Russians, Nabokov had German roots on both sides. A fluent German speaker, he felt at home in Berlin more than in any other major city. “My good German blood saves me,” he used to say.

H — Hindemith

An admirer of the German composer, whom he met in the late 1920s, Nabokov was instrumental in facilitating Paul Hindemith’s move to the United States in the late 1930s after he ran afoul of the Nazi regime.

I — India

When Nabokov discovered India in the 1950s, it became for him “the land of wonders.” A profound admirer of Indian classical music and dance, he played a major role in getting them better known in the West. With the French Indianist Alain Daniélou, he helped create an Institute for Comparative Music Studies in Berlin in 1963.

J — Japan

One of Nabokov’s pioneering festivals was the East-West music encounter he organized in Tokyo in 1961. One of the sensations of this event was the first appearance of the Kathakali dance theater outside Kerala.

Serge Koussevitzky at Carnegie Hall, 1947. Library of Congress.
Serge Koussevitzky at Carnegie Hall, 1947. Library of Congress.

K — Koussevitzky

As conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky conducted the American premiere of Nabokov’s First Symphony with considerable success in 1930. After the war he premiered Nabokov’s cantata The Return of Pushkin (1948), while Charles Münch conducted the first performance of the oratorio La vita nuova (1951), also with the BSO.

L — Leontyne Price

Nabokov was instrumental in launching the career of the great African-American soprano when he insisted that Leontyne Price appear in the main role in Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts when it was staged in Paris in 1952 as part of his Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century festival. She and he remained lifelong friends.

M — Maritain

A deeply spiritual man, though he came to distance himself from any established religion, Nabokov was close to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain and his wife Raïssa, who befriended him in the mid 1920s.

N — Nabokov

Nabokov was justifiably proud to belong to one of the great liberal families of pre-Revolutionary Russia. As Alexander II’s justice minister, his grandfather had given the country one of the most enlightened judicial systems in Europe. Nabokov became particularly close to his uncle Vladimir, one of the leaders of the liberal opposition to the Czar (and father of the novelist), until he was assassinated by a monarchist in Berlin in 1922.

O — Ormandy

The Hungarian-American conductor and the Philadelphia Orchestra gave the world premiere of Nabokov’s Cello Concerto in 1953 and his tone poem Studies in Solitude in 1961. Eugene Ormandy also conducted the American premiere of the Cello Variations he wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1968.

P — Prokofiev

Nabokov became a friend of Sergei Prokofiev and his wife Lina in the late 1920s and subsequently wrote eloquently about the persecution suffered by the Russian composer under Stalin.

Q — Quartet

Nabokov wrote one string quartet in 1937. Subtitled Serenata estiva, it was premiered by the Budapest String Quartet, thanks to a grant from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, at St John’s College, Annapolis, where Nabokov was then teaching, in 1941.

R — Russia

Though he left his native country at the age of 16 and spent the next 59 years of his life in exile, Nabokov always felt profoundly Russian, both as a human being and as a musician.

Igor Stravinsky, Russian composer. Library of Congress.
Igor Stravinsky, Russian composer. Library of Congress.

S — Stravinsky

Nabokov was introduced to Igor Stravinsky in 1927 and became of the great promoters of his music. They were especially close in the last three decades of Stravinsky’s life.

T — Tchaikovsky

Growing up at a time when Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky music was frowned upon by the Western musical avant-garde, Nabokov, for whom lyricism was paramount, always considered Tchaikovsky the greatest of all Russian composers. He was a particular admirer of his ballets.

U — United States

Nabokov emigrated to the United States in 1933, becoming a US citizen in 1939, and making New York his permanent home. Between 1945 and 1947 he served with the American forces in Germany, helping both with the denazification and the reconstitution of musical life in the country.

V — Vladimir

Nabokov was the first cousin of Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita. While Vladimir lived in Berlin, he entertained him in Paris and in Alsace, and in the late 1930s helped him to resettle in the United States. Despite Vladimir’s professed aversion to music, they even collaborated in 1947 on Nabokov’s setting of a poem by Pushkin.

W — Wells College

From 1936 until 1941, Nabokov, who had no prior teaching experience, was professor of music at Wells College in Aurora, NY. There he hosted Copland, Hindemith, and his cousin Vladimir, staged plays with incidental music of his composition, and completely reorganized the musical life of the college.

X — Xenakis

Though Nabokov, as a composer, remained essentially tonal, as a cultural force he was an ardent supporter of all musical trends, and Iannis Xenakis, the Greek-born French composer, was among the younger musicians he promoted.

Y — Yusupov

Rasputin’s End, on a libretto by Stephen Spender and the composer, was Nabokov’s first opera. Premiered in a short version in Louisville in 1958, it was staged in its definitive version at Cologne in 1959, with a cast that included the young Shirley Verrett. In the opera, Prince Felix Yusupov is simply called “The prince.”

Z — Zhdanov

Andrei Aleksandrovich Zhdanov is a Soviet politician who enforced socialist realism in the arts and a Bolshevik historiography. Cultural freedom was not a mere slogan for Nabokov. A member of a circle that included well-informed diplomats such as Chip Bohlen and George Kennan, he never harbored any illusions on the nature of the Soviet regime. In his writings and, later, as head of a non-governmental cultural organization, he felt strongly about the need to protect intellectual and artists from political intimidation and persecution.

Headline Image: Ballet. CC0 via Pixabay

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