Introduction to Kabalevsky’s Music

“We live in a difficult—interesting but difficult—epoch, but still life is wonderful. Great art can only come from love for life, love for man. Art must serve society, the people must understand it. The love of man must be there.” —Dmitri Kabalevsky.1

In his book Music and Education: A Composer Writes About Musical Education, Kabalevsky several times cites the quotation by Maxim Gorki that books for children should be “the same as for adults, only better.”2 This quotation is the guiding principle behind all of Kabalevsky’s music for children. He did not want to compose simplified or dumbed-down adult art, but good art for children. This flowed very naturally out of his educational theories, that of teaching musical literacy rather than musical grammar, instructing how to listen to music, define shapes and structures, not just how to read or how to identify elements of music.

Building an educational framework, Kabalevsky’s book A Story of Three Whales and Many Other Things identifies three archetypes as basic musical forms from which all other larger forms are generated and most accessible to children: song, dance, and march. The archetypes (or whales) become the bridges upon which children may enter the world of music. Nearly all of Kabalevsky’s music for children can be understood as fitting into one of these categories. Kabalevsky believed that “no piece of music, however short and modest, should pass by a child without touching his mind and heart.”3 And it is easy to hear in his pedagogical works that he was focusing on developing a real musical understanding in children rather than just getting them to practice or learn scales.

Kabalevsky composed 253 pieces during his lifetime. There are 26 sonatas, sets or suites of piano music, from concert level works for advanced players to 153 pieces specifically written for progressing piano students. It is no wonder he has remained such a popular choice among piano teachers.

It is worth saying that Kabalevsky considered music to be for people of all ages. His specific emphasis was on creating good music first, then helping students understand the music. Even though some of the titles of his works refer to children, they continue in the tradition established by composers like Schumann and Tchaikovsky in creating well-crafted, approachable pieces that focus on specific pedagogical techniques that piano students of any age will find valuable.

1 in an interview with The New York Times, October 27, 1957 “Optimistic Russian: Kabalevsky, in Speaking of His Fourth Symphony, Reveals Attitude to Life” (quoted in Forrest, 103).

2 Dmitri Kabalevsky, Music and Education: A Composer Writes About Musical Education (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1988), 120.

3 David Lawrence Forrest, The Educational Theory of Dmitri Kabalevsky in Relation to His Piano Music for Children (Ph.D. diss., University of Melbourne. 1996), 143.



Daragan, Dina Grigor’yevna. “Kabalevsky, Dmitry Borisovich,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan. 2001.


Forrest, David Lawrence. The Educational Theory of Dmitri Kabalevsky in Relation to His Piano Music for Children. (Ph.D. diss., University of Melbourne. 1996).


Kabalevsky, Dimitri. Music and Education: A Composer Writes About Musical Education. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1988.


Krebs, Stanley Dale. Soviet Composers and the Development of Soviet Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970.


Maes, Francis. trans. Arnold J. and Erica Pomerans. A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002.


—Richard Walters and Joshua Parman

Mendelssohn: Song Without Words in F-sharp minor “Venetian Boat-Song No. 2,” Op. 30, No. 6 (Upper Intermediate)
Immanuela Gruenberg
Dmitri Kabalevsky: Toccatina from 30 Pieces for Children, Op. 27, No. 12
Richard Walters