Victor Babin, Composer, 1908–1972
1966 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR MUSIC
Newsweek magazine called them “the most brilliant two-piano team of our generation.” And few would have challenged the accolade. Indeed, the husband and wife team of Victor Babin and Vitya Vronsky (1909–1992) are regarded by many as one of the great classical piano duos of the 20th century. Born, respectively, in Moscow and Kiev, the two Russian keyboard virtuosos had already embarked on distinguished separate careers as solo performers (she as a 13-year-old prodigy from the Kiev Conservatory) before they met in 1933 in the studio of the great pianist and teacher Artur Schnabel. But it was, as they say, kismet: Within two years the team of Vronsky and Babin were taking Europe by storm; and in 1937 they were married and living in America.
By the time of Babin’s death in 1972 (Vronsky was to outlive him by another 20 years) it is estimated that they had performed more than 1,200 concerts in North America alone—even with Victor’s having taken time out to serve as a corporal with the American forces, and Vitya in a Washington, D.C., military hospital, during World War II. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s the pair was in huge demand, and toured to tremendous acclaim. American audiences, Babin told Alan Rich of The New York Times, seemed drawn to “the idea of friendship, love, togetherness expressed in music.” It was considered Cleveland’s great good fortune when, in 1961, Babin accepted the directorship, and Vronsky a position on the faculty, of the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Vronsky and Babin may also have evoked tales of the legendary pianism of the 19th century and the thrill of being entertained by live musicians in gas-lit parlors and music rooms before the coming of the phonograph. Part of that tradition was the creation of piano transcriptions of celebrated symphonic or operatic music of the day, since that was the only way many people would ever get to hear (or re-experience) those melodic treasures. And Babin, like Heifetz and Liszt, obliged with his own arrangements, for two pianos or four hands, of works by Stravinsky for solo piano (Tango, Three Movements from Petrouchka), of his friend and mentor Sergei Rachmaninoff (the beloved Vocalise), and J.S. Bach’s “trio” sonata in C major for organ. Some of these are still available on line in the form of sheet music or recordings.
Babin also composed numerous songs, two piano concertos and lots of chamber music. His delightful Hillandale Waltzes for clarinet and piano (recorded for Naxos in an orchestrated version by Kent State University professor of clarinet Dennis Nygren) was written in 1947 as a gift for Washington, D.C., arts patron Anne Archbold, who had called her idyllic estate “Hillandale”. There was also an Introduction and Fugue for Two Piano Fortes; Three Fantasias on Old Themes (“The Piper of Polmood”, “Hebrew Slumber Song”, “Russian Village”); and David and Goliath: Eleven Bible Scenes for Young and Old, a piano duet of charm, pathos and thunder.
The world premiere of Babin’s Concerto No. 2 for Two Pianos was given in January 1957 at Severance Hall by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of George Szell. That week’s concerts, which marked the famous duo’s Cleveland debut, included (besides Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) a performance of Mozart’s Concerto in F Major for Three Pianos—in an arrangement for two pianos made by Mozart himself so he could perform it with his sister Nannerl. Cleveland Press music critic Frank Hruby called Babin’s concerto “an interesting work of rather large proportions” that—while marred somewhat by what he called “almost old-fashioned [piano] runs and chords” and “pianistic clichés”—often achieves a truly distinctive and meaningful progression of musical sounds . . . [and] orchestral colors.”
Victor Babin was said to have enjoyed his 10 years as head of the Cleveland Institute, which he and Vitya played a large part in raising to international prominence. (His signal achievements as director were recognized with a posthumous Special Citation in 1972.) He was renowned as a teacher, and the elegant Babin touch remains a hallmark of his pupils. His valedictory composition, written shortly before his death in 1972, was a setting of 10 poems by poet Judith Steinberg, who was then living in Cleveland, titled Sun Shafts. “The first half is delightful; the second is serious,” writes the distinguished American tenor Paul Sperry, who owns a copy of the score and parts. “The work is attractive; the idiom is conservative.” It has been recorded on Golden Crest GCCL 202.
Victor and Vitya were noted art collectors, and close friends of great composers like Stravinsky and Milhaud. They are both buried in Santa Fe, near their New Mexico home, “Rancho Piano.”
Cleveland Arts Prize
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