Issay Dobrowen

Post is not available in the requested languageIssay Dobrowen (1891-1953) Itschok Zorachovitsj Barabejtsjik was born in Nizhnij-Novgorod in Russia on 15 (27) February 1891 of Jewish parents. His father, Zorach, played in a small orchestra which performed in theatres, at weddings and at the market - anywhere where there was money to be earned. In this way he was just about able to provide for his wife, two daughters and son. But when son number two, Itschok, was born, they…

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Issay Dobrowen (1891-1953) Itschok Zorachovitsj Barabejtsjik was born in Nizhnij-Novgorod in Russia on 15 (27) February 1891 of Jewish parents. His father, Zorach, played in a small orchestra which performed in theatres, at weddings and at the market – anywhere where there was money to be earned. In this way he was just about able to provide for his wife, two daughters and son. But when son number two, Itschok, was born, they saw no other option but to give him up for adoption. Itschok’s mother’s stepfather took the matter in hand and Itschok’s surname was changed to Dobrovel, his maternal grandfather’s family name. During his years as a student his name was changed again, to Isaj Dobrovejn (this form is still used in Russia), and following his emigration in 1922 assumed its final, Western variant: Issay Dobrowen. Dobrowen’s musical talents were developed at an unusually early age. Only four years old he played the piano in public in his home town for the first time. The acclaimed pianist David Shor was by chance in Nizhnij-Novgorod in 1901 and his attention was drawn to the young musician. Shor secured Dobrowen a free place at the Moscow Concervatory, despite the limits dictated by the’Jewish quota’ at the time. At the conservatory he studied piano with Jarosjevskij and composition with Tanejev, and from 1906 was a student in Igumnov’s piano class. Dobrowen was soon known as one of the best piano students at the conservatory, and for his examination in 1911 he was awarded a gold medal. The following term it was decided that he should travel to Vienna to continue his studies with the already legendary pianist Leopold Godowsky. Dobrowen did not manage to settle down in Vienna, however, and less than a year later he moved on to Paris. Here he met a childhood friend, Maxim Gorkij. Dobrowen quickly became part of the group of Russian exiles, but after only half a year his homesickness grew too much and he headed back to Moscow. During the subsequent years Dobrowen was very active as a pianist, with frequent performances as soloist, accompanist, and as a member of chamber music groups. He appeared as soloist with conductors including Koussevitzky and Malko, he played trio with Piatigorsky and Mischakoff (who later became leader of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra) and accompanied his friend Sjaljapin on several occasions. Ever since childhood he had composed – an activity which intensified during this present period, resulting in a number of smaller works. It was however the theatre which throughout his life was Dobrowen’s great passion; he spent many hours in the wings at Stanislavskij’s famous Artists theatre, where Tsjekhov only a few years earlier had worked. Here he was given the chance to compose music for the stage at will, and he frequently played the piano at performances. After some years abroad Maxim Gorkij moved back to Russia in 1914, and the two friends were able to resume their friendship. It was while visiting Gorkij in 1920 that Dobrowen played Beethoven’s Appassionata to an entranced Lenin – an event the new regime exploited for all it was worth. In 1963 a film was made in which this encounter played a central part. Even today one can come across relatively young people in Russia who know the story of the encounter in detail, without associating Dobrowen’s name with anything else. Later in his life Dobrowen distanced himself from Bolshevism; it is an ironic twist of fate that it is for this one encounter his name is remembered in his homeland. Few conducting careers have escalated more rapidly than Dobrowen’s during its first years. In 1918 he conducted an orchestra for the very first time. Tales of Hofmann was to be performed at Kaommisarzhevskij’s theatre Son, and Dobrowen was given the honour of leading. One year later he led the ensemble at the Bolshoi theatre in a performance of Boris Godunov with Sjaljapin in the leading role. Following this production he was engaged as conductor at the theatre – Russia’s most prestigious opera venue. In 1916 Dobrowen married Maria Ruperti, the daughter of a wealthy businessman of German descent. Their respective family backgrounds, though very different in many respects, were the many reason they both felt uneasy about staying in Russia under the new government. When in 1922 the Bolshoi theatre refused to renew his contract (the circumstances of this are unclear), Dobrowen made the decision to move for good to Dresden with his wife and two small children. Little did he know at the time that that would be the last time he would ever see the fatherland, and that it was far from the last time he would have to move due to political unrest. In Dresden a new phase of Dobrowen’s life began. At the time Fritz Busch was preparing the German premiere of Mussorgskij’s Boris Godunov at the Semper opera and Dobrowen, who had recently conducted the work in Moscow, offered his assistance. Busch was so impressed by the young man’s talent that he immediately gave him responsibilty for staging the opera. It ended up with Dobrowen taking over the entire production – after Busch himself had conducted the opening night – and ensuring one of the greatest box-offices successes in the theatre’s histore. Suddenly Dobrowen’s was a name on everybody’s lips, and offers of work came from all over Europe. During the years that followed Dobrowen fulfilled many conducting engagements, both guest performances and more permanent contracts, and was also still an active pianist. However he had increasingly less time to play as his conducting career took gradually more of his time. The same applied to his composing. He was offered guest conductor engagements at the most prestigious orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and the Staatskapelle in Dresden. From 1924 he has engaged on a regular basis by the Berliner Volksoper; for the 1927/28 season he was principal conductor of the opera in Sofia, from 1928 in Oslo, and from 1930 in San Francisco – while remaining based in Dresden. The situation changed in Germany during the 1930s, however, and the family understood that they could not stay in Germany for much longer. For many years the Dobrowen family had had a ‘Nansen passport’, which gave them the freedom to travel virtually wherever they wanted in Europe. They were however required to apply for a visa each time they wanted to visit a foreign country – a time-consuming process. When Dobrowen accepted an engagement in Oslo 1928 they found it highly impractical, and with the help of Nansen the whole family were given Norwegian citizenship that same year. Norway seemed therefore a natural choice when the family decided to move, and so in 1934 they settled in Oslo. It did not take many years before the otherwise so peaceable Norway proved to be a dangerous place to stay. In 1940 Norway was invaded and the Dobrowen family were once again forced to flee – this time to Sweden. From 1941-45 Dobrowen worked with Swedish orchestras only. At the Royal Theatre in Stockholm he had the chance to stage a number of operas for which he had responsibility both for the stage production and for the music. Ever since his debut as an opera director in 1922 he had regularly had such responsibilities – for example in Dresden, Berlin, Budapest and Oslo – with excellent results. Russian opera was not surprisingly his speciality, but also works from the standard repertoire in western Europe were tackled with similar uncompromising thoroughness. Certain productions in Sweden were followed with great interest by the young Ingmar Bergman who tells that Dobrowen’s productions made a lasting impression. After the war Dobrowen was able to resume his international career. he continued to live and work in Sweden, but was constantly travelling. When Walter Legge founded the Philharmonia Orchestra in London in 1945 Dobrowen was engaged to make a series of recordings with them. From 1946-52 he recorded over twenty hours of music for HMV. A large number of these recordings have been transferred to CD and are considered classics of the recorded repertoire. In addition to concerts and recordings he continued to stage operas – productions in which he had responsibility for stage direction, scenography and the music – even at the most prestigious venues such as Covent Garden and La Scala. During the last years of his life he shared the position of director of music with Furtwängler, de Sabata and Karajan. Before he died in 1953 at the age of 62, Dobrowen finished a complete recording of Boris Godunov in Paris – an opera that had accompanied him throughout his career, and a work he knew better than any other. This recording is a fitting monument to an artist’s life which ended all too soon. Dobrowen’s compositions have for many years remained little known to the general public. His list of works consists of twenty opuses and includes a violin sonata, a piano concerto, lieder, and a number of larger and smaller pieces for violin and piano. In addition there are manuscripts of stage music, film music and songs for male choir. Op. 1-11 and 13-14 were first published in Moscow; Op. 6-11 and 13-14 were later published bu Universal Edition in Vienna. Op. 5b, 12, 15-17 and 20 were published in Vienna only, and Op. 1-5a in Moscow only. Op. 18 and 19 are missing. In the years prior to his emigration Dobrowen composed diligently; both the violin sonata and the two first piano sonatas were written in Russia. After the family moved to Dresden and his conducting career gained momentum there was increasingly less time in which to compose. It was only during the summer holiday he found the necessary peace and quiet for composing, and even this did not last long. His first four summers in Germany were to be his final period of composing. After the completion of the piano concerto in 1926 he produced no more works. He continued for some years to perform the piano concerto, the violin sonata and certain other of his compositions, but this too came to an end. In 1932 he conducted his piano concerto for the last time, and since he did not actively seek to have his music played by others, his music was no longer performed. As he grew older he stopped talking about his music all together. It was as if it never had existed. Jørn Fossheim (Translation by Andrew Smith) 2004