Dmitri Kabalevsky ‘The Comedians’: Send in the Clowns!

Day K is upon us dearest readers, and today I am sharing with you a wonderfully comic suite of music by the Russian composer, Dmitri Kabalevsky! This suite is perhaps his most famous composition he wrote, and the second movement is the most famous work. That’s right, we’re going to be looking into The Comedians. This suite, as the title suggests, is light, fun and a great listen, so I do hope you enjoy this blog!

Dmitri Kabalevsky was, in his time, a leading Russian composer, alongside the likes of Aram Khachaturian. Born in 1904 in Saint Petersburg, Kabalevsky was encouraged at a young age to focus on “important” subjects, such as maths (so basically not music). However, against his family’s wishes, Kabalevsky accepted an offer to study at Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition. After graduating, he became a professor at the conservatory. Kabalevsky composed a range of different music from silent movie music to small orchestral pieces. After he composed The Comedians in 1938, war soon broke out and he was committed to write music that supported the war efforts. Thus he wrote more of his ‘serious’ works, which included hymns and cantatas (little is known about a lot of the work in the period).

It has been suggested that Kabalevsky was not an adventurous with his composition style, like his contemporaries. Instead, he focused on more conventional music, with an emphasis on tonal changes from major to minor. His post-war works have been described as “popular, bland and successful” (lovely backhander there!). As well as a prolific composer, Kabalevsky was also famous within music education. He became head of Musical Esthetic Education of Children in 1962.

Interestingly, Kabalevsky was known in Russia for his vocal works and operas, whilst overseas his orchestral works is what claims his fame. The Comedians was written in 1938 as incidental music for Mark Daniel’s children’s play entitled, The Inventor and the Comedians. After Kabalevsky realised how popular this incidental music was, he chose 10 short numbers from the play and arranged them into a concert suite, which is what we know of today. The 10 movements are as follows:

I. Prologue

II. Comedians’ Galop 

III. March 

IV. Waltz

V. Pantomime 

VI. Intermezzo 

VII. Little Lyrical Scene 

VIII. Gavotte 

IX. Scherzo 

X. Epilogue 

Before I talk through the movements, I just would like to highlight the fact that this suite is an example of a caricature. So each movement essentially portrays the ‘comedians” personality traits, as well as physical and mental states. This is what makes this suite so entertaining, because caricatures can me insulting, complimentary or even political. So here we go into the depths of this comedic suite…

I. Prologue 

The first movement begins with a fanfare-like motif in 6/8 by the brass, which is at a fair tempo. The upper flutes and xylophone then enter with a bouncy dotted-rhythm melody, which is very catchy! The trumpets are accompanying with fast quavers. A syncopated section is then heard, which leads us back into the introductory passage and melody. A timpani hit leads us into a minor section, which changes the atmosphere. The brass are muted, but the tempo stays fairly similar to that of the section before. A long chord is held before a sudden quaver note, led by the upper winds and xylophone, which ends this short movement.

II. Comedians’ Galop 

This is, by far, the most famous movement of them all, and for me it is perhaps the most exciting! I have played arrangements of this before in wind bands and it is such fun to play! It begins with a frantic fast march feel, with the brass layering F major chords under the shrill woodwinds. The main theme is then heard, this is led by the upper brass and is very much driven by the snare drum. My favourite part is the next section with the swirling strings, which play an ascending scalic theme. This heightens the tension until the ensemble then repeat the initial melody once more. The second theme is then varied by the xylophone, this is then shadowed by the strings. The brass play strong tonic chords, which again lead back to the first theme. The swirling strings play once more, this time on different chords. The last leg of the piece is a repeat of the first theme again, ending on a strong F major chord at the end, played by the whole ensemble.

III. March 

The third movement starts with a slower tempo. The upper winds play a slow chromatic-shifting motif, which is then ‘answered’ by the strings playing a quick scalic passage and dotted theme, which then leads back to the first theme. This time it is accompanied by the snare drum. A chromatic shift in the strings leads us into the dominant key for the next section. The oboes and clarinets lead this melody. The tonality shifts back to the tonic and the initial theme is heard until a tonic chord is held and the movement finishes.

IV. Waltz

This movement, as the title suggests, is a waltz in 3/4 time. The clarinet starts a melodic statement, which is finished by the oboe. This is then varied by the string section. The accompaniment to this is by the lower brass, who keep a steady tempo. The tonality shifts, but is soon brought back to the tonic when the first theme returns. The horns proclaim a fanfare, which leads to the next section, which is very short. The movement ends with a scale from the woodwind, leading to a tonic note.

V. Pantomime 

This movement starts with a snare roll and the lower strings, who play a quite dark and slow melodic phrase. This section feels like its dragging somewhat, which gives it a raw and deep sound. The strings lead this whole section. The ensemble enter and play some soft-loud chords. Whilst the strings play a variation of the theme, the trumpet plays syncopated off-beats. To me, this movement feels like a proclamation of something. The movement ends with a strong brass interlude, ending on a tonic chord.

VI. Intermezzo 

This movement begins with a fast-paced flute melody in 2/4 time. This has a much different atmosphere to the previous movement. The muted trumpets answer this initial melody, which is subsequently passed around the orchestra. The strings play pizzicato, which give it a light and bouncy feel. The main theme returns, leading to the end which is a vast contrast to the rest of the movement. Marked expressivo, the strings place arco and the melody is fuller and more realised.

VII. Little Lyrical Scene

A clarinet solo begins this lovely movement off. In a slow 6/8 time, this movement is delicate and the strings play very lyrically. The horn takes the main melody and plays a wonderful transition section. The oboes then do the same thing, accompanied by the strings, who whirl up into the theme in an upper register. The clarinet returns to ‘finish what it started’ and ends the melody to close this ‘scene’.

VIII. Gavotte 

This is again another dance-based movement, which is quite slow in tempo. Led by the strings, the initial melody is played. Chromatic shifts give this melody lots of colour and vibrancy against the accompaniment. The melody is passed between the strings and oboes primarily until the second section which is led by the clarinets. The strings return and take over from the winds. A chromatic rall makes the tension rise, and is then broken when the beginning of the movement is repeated once more. The piece ends on a full-ensemble tonic chord.

IX. Scherzo

This movement is very fast-paced and begins with an intricate string motif. This is then answered by the upper strings. I find this section comical and playful, which is then contrasted with the more serious middle section. The playful section returns and the tempo is brought back up. The semiquaver passage nearly sounds like they could be ornamental turns, due to their tempo. The next section is again in a more serious tone, with the flute taking a variation solo. The strings return once more to end this movement with the first melody.

X. Epilogue 

The final movement of the suite begins with a fast swirl of a descending chromatic scale, which gives a peppy and exciting start to the movement. I find that this movement shadows some of the previous movements, for instance the second movement. Lots of fast passage-work is played by various instruments. A slightly slower section is heard, which is emphasised by the xylophone. Chromaticism is heard throughout this movement which gives lots of harmonic colour to the piece. The movements with an exciting passage which ends with strong full-ensemble chords, finally ending on a (you guessed it!)…tonic chord!

That brings us to the end of this wonderful suite, and with 10 movements, it only takes about 14-15 minutes to play through them all! Kabalevsky was a wonderful composer who has contributed so much to both classical music and music education. I do hope you have enjoyed this light-hearted work, which brings such happiness to lots of people. Watch this space for what day L has in store for us tomorrow!

The second movement (Comedians’ Galop) always reminds me of the uni wind orchestra I play in, so I would like to dedicate this to the new president and someone I am extremely fond of, Emily Overend. I hope you get some time to listen to this work and enjoy it as much as I do, I know its great fun to play in SUWO!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recordings:

This recording by the Grand Circus Orchestra (yes that’s a thing!) is perhaps my favourite recording – such fantastic playing!

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