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Unsung Heroes: Nicolai Miaskovsky

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by Murray McLachlan

The Russian Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950) is chiefly remembered today as the composer of twenty-seven symphonies, the life long friend of Prokofiev and the teacher of Kabalevsky and Khatchaturian. But though there have always been a select few in the west who have admired his music (including, curiously, Glenn Gould, who wrote in positive terms about early Miaskovsky in particular), it has never really been widely recognised and performed. This can only be to our loss, for the Miaskovsky oeuvre contains many riches within its essentially ultra romantic aesthetic, and it is fascinating to reflect on the ways in which the harrowing social and political events of the time affected – or did not affect- the music which Miaskovsky wrote.

Like many other Russian composers. Miaskovsky was not originally trained as a musician, and it was at military school in Nizhny-Novgorod that he was sent in 1893. Though music was a constant passion through his early years, it was not until 1906 that he finally became a student at the St. Petersburg conservatoire, where he was a classmate of Prokofiev( the two quickly became inseparable, and piano rolls of Prokofiev performing a couple of Scriabinesque Miaskovsky miniatures have survived), and studied under Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. The Great War forced Miaskovsky back into the army, and he was unable to shed his military commitments fully until 1921, when he was appointed professor of composition at the Moscow conservatoire. It is in this role that he is chiefly remembered, ranking as one of the most influential composition pedagogues of the twentieth century. Miaskovsky’s success as a teacher can be gauged by the enormous number of former students (well over eighty) who became registered with the Soviet Union of Composers and who had their works published and performed. Additionally many others sought out his opinion on new works, including Shostakovich, who acknowledged advice he received from the older master on his first symphony. Indeed it was Shostakovich who once referred to Miaskovsky as ‘the Russian Vaughan Williams’.

Miaskovsky has also been called ‘the musical conscience of Moscow’. Certainly he devoted the main part of his career through his symphonies in particular to the cultivation of a style which would be accessible to all, yet which would retain integrity, depth and reflective power. To Westerners, the concept of music which may strive away from the personal may seem dubious, and certainly it is hard to listen seriously to a work with the title ‘Collective Farm Symphony’, but in Miaskovsky’s case, one has to balance contemporary cold war Soviet commentary and less convincing pieces against those works which undoubtedly make a striking impact. Many of the symphonies exist in piano duo format, and whilst I would not rush with relish towards the scores of numbers 19 (for wind) or the finale of the 27th, it has to be said that the intense Tchaikovskian lyricism and breadth of Symphony number 5 will melt your heart immediately. This work is terrific fun to play on the piano in duet format. The great masterpiece of the twenty-seven is unquestionably Symphony no.6, complete with choral finale. If you do manage to try out Miaskovsky Symphonies in their four hand arrangements, you will be keeping very good company indeed, as Prokofiev, Richter and others are documented as having played through many of these scores when they were literally hot off the press.

Though there is no Piano Concerto, Miaskovsky left dozens of solo miniatures for the instrument, divided into educational sets, polyphonic pieces, lyrical whimsies often reminiscent of Medtner, early Scriabin and Tchaikovsky, and more potent ‘shavings from the work bench’ which embrace atonality and point towards the influence of late Scriabin at times. But Miaskovsky’s main contribution to to literature is nine surviving Sonatas, an E minor Sonatine, and a Prelude and Rondo- Sonata. These eleven works divide into four groups, showing various phases and influences on the composer’s style.

It seems that in the 1940s Miaskovsky extensively re-organised many of his major piano works in an attempt to make them more accessible and comprehensible to both performers and audiences. Certainly this is the case with Sonatas 1, 5 and 6, (group one) originally composed in the summer of 1907, but extensively revised in 1944. The first Sonata is a 30 minute four movement work unified by an opening Bachian Fugue which reappears in various guises in the remaing three movements. This is a veritable symphony for solo instrument, exploiting enormous pianistic textures, and in the luscious slow movement pointing towards the polyrhythmic textures of many a Leopold Godowsky score. Tuneful, tonal and colourful, it can make an enormous impression on audiences despite the fact that the language is not especially personal, reminding one in turns of Rachmaninov, Glazunov and Balakirev. Sonatas 5 and 6 are more intimate, bringing a rather impressionistic range of colour to themes which are often quintessentially Russian. Especially touching are the second movement of the Sixth Sonata and the first movement of the fifth, both of which could very easily have come from Faure’s hand.

Sonatas 2, 3 and 4 (group two) were also extensively revised decades after first being published in 1912, 1920 and 1924-5 respectively. In this triptych of works we enter a dark, rarified and experimental world in which nothing can be taken for granted. Moments of tonality and traditional romanticism are strikingly contrasted with atonality in textures that exploit the full range of the keyboard, often to striking and novel effect. The sheer density of notes on the page is daunting in the extreme. At times one feels as though the volatility of a Charles Ives has been crossed with the structural prowess of a Medtner, all in the language of late Scriabin! Sonata 2 uses Dies Irae, complete with fugato at Prestissimo tempo, whilst the lugubrious one movement brood which is number three contrasts with the more publicly angry fourth Sonata (the second subject of this work’s finale can only be described as Schumann’s Toccata presented in atonality!). Richter recorded and performed Sonata number three, and it seems a great pity that these works in particular are not more widely heard in the West.

By the Second World War Miaskovsky had quietened considerably, and it is striking to consider both his Sonatine in E minor op.57, and Prelude and Rondo-Sonata op.58, (group three),both contemporaneous with Prokofiev’s War Sonata trilogy, yet heavily coated with late romantic nostalgia and lyricism. But these are far fro anonymous creations: one can sense the profound unease, the longing for peace, the intensity of expression in every phrase of these highly accessible yet intensely beautiful pieces. This is music that speaks from a very heavy heart. How sad then that piano music from Miaskovsky’s final months (Sonatas 7,8 and 9: 1949, group four) turns out to be very anonymous, basic in terms of technical difficulty, and conservative in the worst sense. Glenn Gould was especially dismissive of this last set of Sonatas from the great symphonist’s pen (see the Glenn Gould reader, edited by Tim Page), but considering the political turmoil of 1948, when Miaskovsky was publicly denounced by the central committee of the Communist Party for ‘Formalism’ in music (along with Shotakovich, Prokofiev and others) it is hardly surprising that his final sounds for the instrument are so tame and ‘safe’.

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