Dunayevsky, Isaak Osipovich

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(19001955), composer.

The Soviet composer Isaak Dunayevsky has been compared to Irving Berlin and the other great songsters of the 1930s and 1940s in America. Like Berlin, he was a Russian-born Jewish composer whose musical fertility gained him fame and wealth in the realm of popular songs and musical comedy for film and stage. Unlike the American, he spent his most productive years under the shadow of the Great Dictator, Josef Stalin. This meant walking a tightrope from which a slight breeze could topple him. That tightrope was Soviet mass song, a genre embedded within a larger cultural system known as Socialist Realism, the officially established code of creativity fashioned in the early 1930s. Mass song required both political message and broad popular appeal, a combination usually possible only in moments of urgent national solidarity, as in wartime. Irving Berlin united these elements successfully in the two world wars, and in between settled for the unpolitical forms of love ballads and novelty tunes. Dunayevsky had to sustain the combination before, after, and during World War II.

Dunayevsky, born near Kharkov in Ukraine, began as a student of classical music. After the Russian Revolution, he played with avant-garde forms but eventually settled into composing popular music. His first big hit was the score for Makhno's Escapades (1927), a circus scenario that mocked the civil war anarchist leader of a Ukrainian partisan band opposed to the Bolsheviks. Dunayevsky went on to compose some twenty film scores, a dozen operettas, and music for two ballets and about thirty dramas. His lasting legacy is the music from the enormously popular musical films of the 1930s: Happy-Go-Lucky Guys, Circus, Volga, Volga, and Radiant Road, all featuring the singing star of the era, Lyubov Orlova, and directed by her husband, Grigory Alexandrov. A fountain of melody, Dunayevsky wove elements of folk song, Viennese operetta styles, and jazz into optimistic declamatory tunes that captivated Soviet listeners for decades. The lyrics of the most famous of these, "Vast Is My Native Land" (1936), from the film Circus, celebrated the official image of Russia as a great nation, filled with free and happy citizens. The Dunayevsky mode was overshadowed somewhat during World War II, when more somber and intimate songs prevailed. His postwar hit, the music for Kuban Cossacks (1950), enhanced the propaganda value of that film, which idealized the affluence of Cossacks and peasants on the collective farms of the Kuban region. Dunayevsky died in 1955.

See also: motion pictures; socialist realism


Jelagin, Juri. (1951). Taming of the Arts, tr. N. Wreden. New York: Dutton.

Starr, S. Frederick. (1983). Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stites, Richard. (1992). Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Richard Stites