Nicolas Nabokov
A Life in Freedom and Music

Vincent Giroud

Oxford University Press 2015

ISBN 978-0-19-939989-5


584 pages. 34 b&w halftones


Nicolas Nabokov - A Life in Freedom and Music

Author Vincent Giroud observes that exile and immigration are a crucial part of twentieth-century music history. After all, Bartok, Hindemith, Schoenberg and Stravinsky - four of the greatest twentieth-century composers - spent part of their careers away from their native soil. And like Vladimir, his more famous cousin (and the author of Lolita, published in 1955), Nicolas Nabokov (1903-1978) came to fame after his move to the USA, a transition Nicolas made in 1933. As the author himself observes, to read Giroud's account feels like going through a Who Was Who in the twentieth century.

Elliot Carter had encouraged the writing of this account. Here we encounter Serge Prokofiev (who was a bad driver, we are told), Virgil Thomson, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Oppenheimer, W.H.Auden, Robert Lowell, Isaiah Berlin, Yehudi Menuhin, Leontyne Price, Willy Brandt and Indira Gandhi, to name but a few. Carter himself had said: "Nicolas deserves a large book." Here, in 584 pages, is that book.

During his early Russian years Nabokov saw Cesar Cui with Aleksandr Glazunov in conversation, heard Jascha Heifetz play, saw Richard Strauss conduct Also sprachZarathrustra and, in 1912 or 1913, attended a performance of Stravinsky's Feirverk. Nabokov had a passion for the music of Scriabin, but disliked the music of Reger. Nabokov's tutor took him to hear Lenin speak, when Nabokov was surprised by the posh diction of the exiled revolutionary leader.

By 1920 Berlin was the main centre of Russian emigration and by 1921 Nabokov was a student at the Berlin Hochschule, where contemporary residents included Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek. Then to Paris, where Nabokov's memories included meeting, or at least spotting, Alberto Giacometti, Federico Garcia Lorca, the young Bertold Brecht, and others. He also remembers encountering James Joyce and even George Gershwin - though he did not remember or specify under what circumstances. In Paris in 1930 he met Wanda Landowska, a masculine looking, cross-eyed and pale girl who driving a large, black Citroën, 'who seems to have inspired in him instant antipathy.'  However, she played Chopin 'like a man, robustly, and with no attempt towards mannered romanticism.' Within three years Nabokov had moved to the USA.

Giroud has given us a weighty, fascinating and vivid account of a man who, though much-travelled and well-connected, and despite having been the holder of a series of distinguished teaching posts, seems destined to be forgotten, his music unplayed.

This book may well change that destiny.

John Robert Brown

A version of this review was published in Classical Music Magazine, January 2016. Shown here by kind permission of the editor. No reproduction without permission.
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