Ivan Dzerzhinsky

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Ivan Ivanovich Dzerzhinsky (Russian: Иван Иванович Дзержинский; 9 April 1909 (O. S 27 March)–18 January 1978) was a Russian composer. The work for which he best known, his opera Quiet Flows the Don (Tikhiy Don), was more successful for its political potential than for any musical distinction.[1]

Personal life and career

Born in Tambov, Dzerzhinsky had an extended formal background in music. He studied piano with Boleslav Yavorsky at the First Music Tekhnikum in Moscow between 1925 and 1929. Afterwards he spent 1930–31 at the Gnesin School as a composition student of Mikhail Gnesin. Two years at the Leningrad Central Music Tekhnikum followed. There he studied composition first with Gavriil Nikolayevich Popov, then with Pyotr Borisovich Ryazanov. He then proceeded to the Leningrad Conservatory for two years of study with Boris Asafiev.[1]

From 1936 Dzerzhinsky held important administrative positions in the Union of Soviet Composers as well as in party politics. In 1948 he was appointed to the central committee of the union. At various times after 1946, he acted as a deputy to the Leningrad City Soviet.[1] He died in Leningrad in 1978.

Style and technique

Unlike Popov, Ryazanov and Asafiev, who were considered progressive in their musical outlook, Dzerzhinsky from the outset wrote works that were considered traditional. His First Piano Concerto, early songs and piano pieces were influenced by Grieg, Rachmaninoff and early Ravel. In the early 1930s he was influenced by Shostakovich's music, particularly in his Second Piano Concerto, which he wrote in 1934. (This piece was criticized officially much later.)[1]

Quiet Flows the Don

Dzerzhinsky consulted Shostakovich while composing the opera Quiet Flows the Don to a libretto adapted by Dzerzhinsky's brother, Leonid, from the Sholokhov novel And Quiet Flows the Don. According to Leonid's own account, he utilized Sholokhov's work motifs, freely rearranging and adapting to the purpose of accentuating the dramatic aspects of the plot and to condense as much as possible of the novel's social significance within the confines of the operatic format.[2]

This opera was premiered at the Leningrad Malïy Opera Theater in October 1935. Stalin saw the work on January 17, 1936 and immediately recognized its propaganda value. Its subject was heroic and patriotic; it glorified the spirit of the Don Cossacks, whose support would become necessary in the event of war (a war that, incidentally, seemed increasingly inevitable); and its music was both lyrical and immediately appealing. Sholokhov's novel, whose first edition was the basis of the opera, was later hailed: "...with its substance, construction, style and symbolism [it] is one of the most notable contemporary literary works of the Soviet Union. The author's selected setting is the Don Cossacks, their life and ways, class struggle, schisms and seesaws, that define and evoke the patriarchal order of Cossack life, the first imperialist war, the revolution and people's struggle. The great events of history are made manifest in the quietude and tranquility of Cossack life suffering a total upheaval, degenerating into in a bloody struggle."[2]

Within weeks Quiet Flows the Don was proclaimed a model of socialist realism in music and won Dzerzhinsky a Stalin Prize (Ironically, Stalin saw Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District at the same theater nine days after attending Quiet Flows the Don. His disapproval of Shostakovich's opera set the stage for its composer's official denunciation, which lasted until Shostakovich wrote his Fifth Symphony.)[1]

Due at least in part to official praise, Quiet Flows the Don proved wildly successful, reaching its 200th performance in May 1938. However, its undistinguished musical style—lyrical and folkloric in style but not based on any true folk songs—possessed little potential for future development. Dzerzhinsky wrote his next opera, Virgin Soil Upturned (Podnyataya tselina), in 1937. Also based on a Sholokhov novel, it is tauter dramatically and is similar in musical style to its predecessor. Nevertheless, it failed to repeat the success of Quiet Flows the Don—nor did any of Dzerzhinsky's subsequent operas.[1]

Honours and awards


  • McAllister, Rita, ed. Stanley Sadie, "Dzerzhinsky, Ivan [Ivanovich]," The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980), 20 vols. ISBN 0-333-23111-2.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 McAllister, New Grove, 5:797.
  2. 2.0 2.1 LSSR Opera and Ballet Theater program, State Publishing House, 1940