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Nikolai Lopatnikoff

March 16, 1903 - October 7, 1976
born in Tallinn, Estonia
One of the many Russian musicians who fled their homeland after the dual ravages of the first World War and the 1917 Revolution, composer and pianist Nikolai Lopatnikoff ended life in 1976 a U.S. citizen and a respected part of American musical academia. Lopatnikoff was born in Estonia in 1903 and trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory as a teenager. In 1918, not yet 16 years old, he left St. Petersburg -- which, like the whole region, was embroiled in civil war -- for Helsinki. He studied at the Helsinki Conservatory for two years and took some private lessons from composer Ernst Toch (who would himself become an American before too long); in 1921, fearful for his future financial well-being and at the same time desiring more time to hone his skills as a composer, Lopatnikoff enrolled as an engineering student at the Karlsruhe Technical School in Germany. He remained there for a full six years, by the end of which time he had composed a handful of mature (or at least semi-mature) works, including the Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 5, the String Quartet No. 1, Op. 4, and a pair of pieces for mechanical piano.

The two pieces for mechanical piano, in fact, were largely responsible for raising Lopatnikoff from the rank of engineering student to that of professional composer. They were an immediate success when premiered in 1928 and were published the following year. In 1929, conductor Sergey Koussevitsky premiered the orchestral work Introduction and Scherzo, Op. 10, really an arrangement and orchestration of the mechanical piano music. Lopatnikoff was a resident in Germany until 1933, he then lived to London until the start of World War II, at which time he emigrated to the United States. He joined the faculty of Hartt College of Music in Connecticut and headed up the composition and theory faculty at the Westchester Conservatory in New York. In 1945, one year after becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, Lopatnikoff joined the music faculty of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh; he retired in 1969. He was twice awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1963, and in 1951 married the well-known poet Sara Henderson Hay.

Lopatnikoff's music has been described as a blend of late nineteenth-century Russian nationalism and the leaner twentieth-century neo-Classical sounds of Hindemith and Stravinsky: rhythmically pointed but melodically voluptuous. His output includes the opera Danton (1932), a pair of piano concertos (both premiered by Lopatnikoff), four symphonies, and a great deal of chamber and piano music. ~ Blair Johnston, Rovi
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