Skip to main content
Return to Ransom Center Home Page
About the Center News Exhibitions and Events Research Collections

Nicolas Nabokov, 1903-1978

Biographical Sketch

A self described cosmopolitan, Nicolas Nabokov (cousin to novelist Vladimir Nabokov) was born April 4/17, 1903 (Gregorian/Julian) to a family of landed Russian gentry in the town of Lubcza near Minsk. Nabokov's parents divorced while he was still an infant, but this did not prevent the family from enjoying a life of privilege. Nabokov was well educated from an early age by private tutors (he was fluent in at least four languages), but did not show a strong interest in music until age 11. Fleeing the Bolshevik revolution, Nabokov moved to the Crimea with his family in 1918 and there received his first formal instruction in music composition from Vladimir Rebikov. In 1919, the family left Russia and Nabokov continued his music studies in Stuttgart and Berlin. In 1923, he joinedthe growing community of Russian ŽmigrŽs in Paris and over the next three years attained the equivalence of a Bachelors and then aMasters degree from the Sorbonne.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nabokov taught private lessons in music, language, and literature in Paris and Berlin. During this period he began to expand his many professional and personal friendships. Nabokov recounts these relationships in his book IGOR STRAVINSKY (1964) and his two volumes of memoirs--Old Friends and New Music (1951) and Bagazh (1975).

In 1928, Nabokov wrote his first major piece, the ballet-oratorio ODE, for Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes de Monte-Carlo. He wrote his first symphony, Lyrical Symphony in 1931. Two years later, at the invitation of the Barnes Foundation, he moved to the United States as a lecturer on western music. In 1934, Nabokov wrote what he called "the first truly American ballet," Union Pacific, on a theme presented to him by Archibald MacLeish.

From 1936 to 1941, Nabokov headed the Music Department at Wells College in New York. He then took a position as the Director of Music at St. John's College in Maryland. He continued to write symphonies and other pieces while in these positions, and also published a number of articles and essays in magazines such as the ATLANTIC MONTHLY, HARPER'S, and New Republic. He became a US citizen in 1939.

In 1945, Nabokov traveled to occupied Germany as civilian cultural advisor in a series of positions with the American Military Government. He returned to the US in 1947 to teach at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. While at the Peabody he participated in seminars at several Universities, then became the Director of Music at the American Academy in Rome from 1950 to 1951.

In 1951, Nabokov became Secretary General of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), a position he held for the next 15 years. Living in Paris and New York, Nabokov gained widespread acclaim for planning and organizing numerous international conferences on politics, science, and the arts. His series of music festivals: MASTERPIECES OF THE XXTH CENTURY (Paris, 1952); Music in our Time (Rome, 1954); Eastern and Western Musical Traditions (Venice, 1956); East-West Music Encounter (Tokyo, 1961); and European and Indian Music Traditions (New Delhi, 1963), were some of the largest and most important music events of the time.

Nabokov continued to compose his own music while heading the CCF, scoring Stephen Spender's libretto for the opera RASPUTIN'S END in 1958 and writing Don Quixote for the New York City Ballet in 1966. He also directed three annual arts festivals in West Berlin from 1964 to 1966.

When the CCF ceased functions in 1967 after revelations of secret CIA funding (of which Nabokov denied any knowledge or influence) he took a series of lecturer positions at Princeton, the City University of New York, and the State University of New York at Old Westbury. In 1970, he became resident composer at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies in Colorado. In 1971, he composed the opera LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST, to a libretto by W. H. Auden based on Shakespeare's play. After leaving the Aspen Institute in 1973 he continued to lecture and write.

Nabokov was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Berlin Academy of Arts and Letters, the French Society of Composers, and Commander of the Grand Cross of Merit of the German Federal Republic. At the time of his death, on April 6, 1978, of a heart attack following surgery, he was working on a third volume of memoirs. He was survived by his fourth wife, Dominique, whom he married in 1970, and three sons from previous marriages--Ivan, Alexander, and Peter.

Nicolas Nabokov Papers Finding Aid
Title Page Biographical
Scope and
Folder List Index of

(Last modified: 30 October 1998)

Reference queries to:

Return to Finding Aids

About the Center   |   News   |   Exhibitions & Events   |   Research   |   Collections

Home   |   Store   |   E-mail   |   eUpdates   |   Giving Opportunities   |   Site Map


  Harry Ransom Center Logo Use of Web Site Content