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Prokofiev's and Myaskovsky's Quartets

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Program notes by Peter Laki

Sergei Prokofiev
String Quartet No. 2 in F Major, Op. 92
Nikolai Miaskovsky
String Quartet No. 13 in a minor, Op. 86

Longtime friends Prokofiev and Miaskovsky made a rather odd couple. Sergei Prokofiev was worldly and flamboyant, Nikolai Miaskovsky lonely and introverted; he was also exactly 10 years and seven days older. Despite this age difference, they first met as classmates at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Prokofiev was admitted there at an early age as an exceptionally talented young boy. Miaskovsky, a late bloomer, arrived after he had finally been able to escape the unwanted military career pressured upon him by his family. During Prokofiev’s 15-year sojourn in the West, they maintained a busy correspondence. After his return to Russia in 1934, they picked up exactly where they had left off; their friendship lasted until Miaskovsky’s death in 1950. Prokofiev never lived down this loss until his own death less than three years later.

In 1941, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the two friends, evacuated from Moscow with a group of artists, found themselves in the town of Nalchik in a part of the Northern Caucasus called Kabardino-Balkaria. Here they were encouraged by a local arts administrator to study the folk music of the region and to make use of it in original compositions. Miaskovsky responded with his Symphony No. 23, and Prokofiev with his second string quartet – which was also to remain his last.

Intrigued by the challenge of reconciling the non-Western features of Kabardinian folk songs with the medium of the string quartet, Prokofiev produced one of his rare essays in musical exoticism. As commentators have frequently pointed out, he did not “glamorize” the exotic material the way older composers – from Rimsky-Korsakov to Ippolitov-Ivanov – had done. As evidenced in the first of his quartet’s three movements, he did not hesitate to present the folk songs in their original roughness and angularity. The second movement is based on an intensely emotional melody first introduced by the cello in its high register; here, as well as in the movement’s livelier middle section, the synthesis of the Eastern melodies and the Western medium is more complete.

In the last movement Prokofiev was able to reconnect with the genre of the playful, folkbased rondo, whose history in European music – especially string quartet music – goes back all the way to Haydn. The main theme is one that Miaskovsky also used in his symphony; this sparkling movement also includes a cello cadenza and, immediately following, a passionate central episode.

While Prokofiev was working on this quartet, he was ordered to move on to Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia. It was there that the work was completed, along with one of the most important compositions of the war years: the magnificent Piano Sonata No. 7.

In 1948, both Prokofiev and Miaskovsky (as well as Shostakovich) were harshly censured by the Communist Party, which, in a resolution issued in February, denounced their music as “formalistic” (the worst accusation imaginable) and alien to the Soviet people. Devastated after this brutal attack, the composers buried themselves in their work, and for Miaskovsky in particular, the year following the Party resolution turned out to be exceptionally productive. He completed Symphony No. 27, his second cello sonata (arguably one of his greatest works), three piano sonatas, and the String Quartet No. 13, all in 1949. The quartet was written for the Beethoven Quartet which also premičred many of Shostakovich’s quartets; its success was rewarded by a State Prize which, however, became a posthumous recognition for the composer.

In this work, the aging master is looking back on the days of his youth. Throughout his life, Miaskovsky was a prolific writer of romansy – romantic art songs based on a traditional genre that flourished in the cities of Russia throughout the 19th century. This specifically Russian tradition is evoked in the beautiful slow movement of the quartet.

In her 1985 book on Miaskovsky, Z. K. Gulinskaya offers the following comments on String Quartet No. 13:

"The soft, lyrical opening theme of the first movement immediately calls attention to itself on account of its lively character. The composer did not hesitate to break the traditional formal scheme, masterfully combining the sonata allegro with some rondo elements. Thus, the theme appears in many guises, and its basic meaning receives a different nuance or emphasis each time. Striving for a symphonic texture, Miaskovsky presents a whole series of elaborate contrapuntal developments".

Nikolai Yakovlevich called the second movement a “fantastic scherzo,” and used in it a theme that had originally been intended for a symphony. This graceful scherzo, which includes a light waltz melody in the middle, evokes images similar to those of a beloved Russian fairytale. The slow movement, with its singing quality, is a lyrical meditation. The beautiful finale is rich in thematic material and diverse in development. As in the first movement, full ensemble sonorities are combined with moments of broadly conceived contrapuntal episodes, bringing the entire work to a grandiose conclusion.

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