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RIP Vladimir Dmitri Probonovich


The Russian composer Vladimir Dmitri Probonovich has died. Official Russian information services announced today that the composer, who was 74, passed away at this home in Severodvinsk [Arkhangelsk Oblast] “in an agitated state of mind”. Probonovich’s Symphony No 108 “The 5th of November” was recently performed for the first time in a reduced-orchestral version by the Thrupiece Sinfonietta under charismatic Chief Conductor Irina Legova. Sources close to the Thrupiece Philharmonic Society have strongly denied any connection between the two events.

The composer Vladimir Dmitri Pobonovich whose death was announced today.

The composer Vladimir Dmitri Probonovich whose death was announced today. More popular in Western Europe than in his homeland, he was a frequent visitor to Britain where he was even mobbed on one occasion - though largely because he was mistaken for someone else.

The three-stringed yakulele o which Probonivich was proficiant from an early age

Probonovich was born in to a poor family in 1944 in the small town of Nizhnevartovsk in the Urals. He rapidly proved himself adept on the three-stringed yakulele (a folk instrument local to the region) and was spotted during a school concert by visitors from the Moscow Conservatoire who were touring the district collecting folk tunes (and empty vodka bottles) for the huge Проект русской народной музыки (Russian State Folk Music Project). On arrival at the conservatoire he met, amongst others, Dmitri Shostakovich (“small man, enormous spectacles”) and was befriended by anti-formalist composition teacher and high-powered party member Yegor Yurwayandyerded. Outside official classes, Probonovich studied briefly with Alfred Schnittke from whom, he later said, he learned “nothing of interest and even less of any lasting practical use”. Schnittke’s angular un-melodic style was not to Probonovich's taste: he favoured rather the old Russian masters Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky (up until but not including The Symphonies for Winds). He once famously described Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles as “куча полоцвцианского конского дерьма” ("a pile of Polovtsian horse shit") - a remark which immediately earned him commissions from major professional choirs throughout Western Europe and the USA.

In 1976, an attempt to smuggle the score of his Symphony No 54 “Stalin’s a Twat” to the West was foiled when the manuscript got lost in the post (it was addressed to Mr André Previn c/o Mia Farrow, Hollywood but ended up in Frank Sinatra’s wardrobe), but a microfiche of the piano score turned up unexpectedly in 1978 inside the ferrule of a poisoned sword stick in Pervouralsk. Probonovich was briefly implicated but released by the authorities on condition that he avoided all contact with vegetable matter, potato crisps and caramel wafers (by Grey Dunn). He was also ordered not to enter within a radius of 30 miles of 24 Anarchist Gardens, Kroptkingrad where Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was perfecting the dark arts of what would come to be known as economic stagnation.

In his later years Probonovich acquired a number of pupils most notably the composer/pianist Bobby Crush to whom he was introduced by celebrity talent-spotter Sir Hughie Frieze-Green during a Russian pilot of the talent show Оппозиция стучится и делает КГБ [Opportunity Knocks And So Do The KGB]. Though his compositional fluidity dried up somewhat after 2003, Probonovich leaves behind a rich legacy of 23 concertos (for various instruments including 3 for his beloved yakulele), 123 symphonies (the last Symphony No 124 (there is no Symphony No 113) entitled presciently Я думаю, что это все ("I Think This Is It")), 4 operas, 8 oratorios and a Eurovision Song Contest Entry Ваш дед украл моих цыплят, теперь я молюсь о его могиле ("Your grandfather stole my mother's chickens, now I am p*****g on his grave”) (Azerbaijan 2012).

In England Probonovich was befriended by both Benjamin Britten and Sir Michael Tippett with one or other of whom he stayed whenever he visited the UK in the 1960s. He never married.

The composer Alfred Schnittke at his desk.  Note the picture of a young Probonovich on the window sill.

The composer Alfred Schnittke at his desk. Note the picture of a young Probonovich on the window sill. The marginally older composer clearly had warmer feelings towards his informal pupil than the pupil to his teacher, though Schnittke was no fan of the yakulele.

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