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Nicolas Nabokov

Nicolas Nabokov was born on 17 April 1903 in Lubcza (Russia, now Belarus). He was born into a wealthy family and was educated privately. This private education also included musical studies. So Nicolas Nabokov learned to play the piano and cello, but without being a child prodigy. His adolescence was characterised by the First World War and the October Revolution and the fact that his family had to move several times to sidestep the occurrent turmoil and prosecution. For that reason the family moved to i.a. Yalta and later The Hague.


At the end of his education Nicolas Nabokov was interested in different topics, but finally decided to study music. He first went to Stuttgart (Germany) to study under Joseph Haas and Max von Pauer. After three semesters he moved to Berlin where he completed his studies under Paul Juon and Ferruccio Busoni.


In 1923 Nicolas Nabokov went to Paris where he connected to the musical scene. He first made the acquaintance of Georges Auric and Henri Sauguet, which opened the doors to befriend with other composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Milhaud or Poulenc. From that time date the first serious compositions by Nicolas Nabokov, which were immediately performed. For example his Piano sonata from 1926 was premiered the same year by Claudio Arrau. And as a member of the concert society "La Serenade" many of his subsequent works were performed as well at their events.


In the early 1930s Nicolas Nabokov had to deal with fact that he could not make a living from his composing despite the success of his works. He received an offer from the Barnes Foundation in the US to lecture at Wells College in New York which he accepted. In 1933 Nicolas Nabokov emigrated to the US and started his position at Wells College. In 1939 he became naturalised US citizen. Two years later he moved to Maryland where he taught at the St. John's College in Annapolis.


In 1945 Nicolas Nabokov was appointed by the US forces - due to endeavors and applications by Nabokov himself - and sent to Europe. He was based in Berlin and worked as a liaison officer until 1947. Then Nicolas Nabokov moved back to the US and continued teaching, now at the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore until 1950. In 1951 he became the Secretary General of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. This newly founded organisation had the aim to convince the European people - through cultural activities - that liberal democracy is better than communism. It was funded by the CIA and so was an active part of Cold War in the 1950s and 60s. In the 1966 the involvement of the CIA was revealed and a year later Nicolas Nabokov quit his position at the Congress for Cultural Freedom.


Nicolas Nabokov returned to lecturing and taught at Princeton University, City University and State University of New York and became Composer in Residence at the Aspen Institute from 1970 to 1973.


Beside his main activties in teaching and cultural policy Nicolas Nabokov always composed music. Over the decades his output grew to a number of aroung 80 compositions. That include the two operas "Rasputin's End" and "Love's Labour's Lost", 3 symphonies, concertos for piano, flute and cello, a string quartet, 2 piano sonatas and a few more piano pieces, 7 ballets, the oratorio "Job", compositions for voices and orchestra like "The return of Pushkin" or "La vita nuova", song cycles like "Chants a la Vierge Marie" or "Silent songs", choral music  like the "Cantate de cour" as well as some incidental and film music.


Nicolas Nabokov died on 6 April 1978 in New York (USA).

In my possession is the autograph manuscript of the work "Litany for bassoon and piano" by Nicolas Nabokov. The work was composed in 1942 and later became the first movement of the "Sonata for bassoon and piano". The "Litany" is dedicated to bassoonist Leonard Sparrow, but there is no evidence that he ever performed the work. In fact the composition remained unpublished for decades and so fell into oblivion. It was rediscovered in 2008 and then performed and published.

My manuscript comes from the estate of US composer and pianist Leo Smit (1921-1999, not to be confused with the Dutch composer Leo Smit who lived from 1900-1943). Leo Smit was a piano and composition student of Nicolas Nabokov in the late 1930s.

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