Goodbye to Nikolai Kapustin


I wasn’t going to write a blog post on Nikolai Kapustin. who died on July 2 at the age of 82, in part because I devoted an entire chapter on him in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond and in part because I figured that others would eulogize him, but I was wrong about the latter. Aside from Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc website and a mention on a couple of other blog sites, no one in the classical world seems to care that he’s gone. There have been no obituaries in the Manchester Guardian, London Times, New York Times or any other major newspaper. As far as the classical press is concerned, he didn’t exist.

Which is a truly sad reflection on the gulf that still separates classical music and jazz, a gulf that Kapustin devoted most of his life to reconciling. A sad-looking, quiet and private little man, Kapustin wrote music that was happy, ebullient and decidedly outgoing. He began his career writing and playing standard classical music, like most good little Ukrainian and Russian musical children; he wrote a piano sonata at age 13 and, from age 14 on, studied piano with Avrelian Rubakh. Rubakh was, along with Vladimir Horowitz and Simon Barere, a pupil of Felix Blumenfeld. Kapustin also studied with Alexander Goldenweiser at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1950s, but around this time he discovered the inspiration of his life, jazz pianist Oscar Peterson.

Smitten by Peterson’s brilliant jazz playing, Kapustin himself dipped into the field. He was noted as a jazz pianist in the late 1950s and early ‘60s; there are two remarkable videos of him from 1964 on YouTube, one playing a standard swing riff tune with Oleg Lundstrem’s big band and another of him playing his own Toccata, Op. 8 with an anonymous big band. Ironically, though the swing tune was improvised and the Toccata completely written out, it is the Toccata that swings harder and blows you away. In addition to the rhythm, it is considerably more complex; you’d swear that every musician who solos on this piece, including Kapustin, was improvising, but not a note of it is improvised. It was all written out, down to the very last demisemiquaver. It was near the beginning of his long and fruitful career writing what Charles Mingus would call “jazzical moods.”

In a rare interview given to a Fanfare critic back in the early 1990s, Kapustin assured the writer that he was not censored by the Soviet Kultur Bureau. “No, there was no problem,” he said. “I wrote music that was accessible and liked by many people. I was never censured.” And so he went on writing pieces like the Toccata for the next 60-odd years—161 in all, including his famous Paraphrase on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.” Among his huge catalog are eight Concert Études, 24 Preludes, 16 Piano Sonatas, two String Quartets, a Quartet and a Quintet for saxophones, a Piano Quintet, six Piano Concerti, a Flute Sonata, two Cello Sonatas, Intrada & Finale for Sextet, two Piano Trios, and a large number of miscellaneous pieces. There wasn’t a single bad piece in his entire output, and most of them were utterly brilliant. He was a favorite composer of Marc-André Hamelin, Masahiro Kawakami and Carlo Levi Minzi, among others, yet word about Kapustin’s remarkable music traveled slowly—again, in part because of the ridiculous prejudice towards jazz styles and forms by many classical musicians. I myself never heard of him until I read a review by another critic in Fanfare in the early 2000sl had I not seen that review, I probably wouldn’t have known much about him either.

Of course, Kapustin’s lack of exposure probably had much to do with this. Not only was he not a self-promoter; on the contrary, except for getting his music published and occasionally recorded, he didn’t seem to care very much one way or the other. A few of the musicians who worked with him on his pieces have told me that he was always very encouraging and helpful insofar as his music went, but nothing more. Almost no one knew anything much about his private life. His bio on Wikipedia has but one personal reference, that he had a son. No wife is mentioned. Except for his marvelous music, which he continued to write up until early this year, he may as well have been a ghost.

Thus it is difficult for me to say anything more about him other than that he was a musical genius who operated in his own private sphere. Check out pp. 394-408 of my book (available here online for free reading or download) for my analysis of his music. And just remember that this man gave his life to this enterprise, a legacy unlike any other in the entire history of classical music. For me, and a few million other fans who loved and revered him, he will be sorely missed.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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