Myaskovsky - the Russian enigma, by Gregor Tassie
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The forgotten man of Russian music - Nikolay Myaskovsky is making a comeback after many years of neglect. Renowned most of all for writing 27 symphonies; he also composed two concertos,100 art songs, 9 piano sonatas and 13 string quartets; why is it that Myaskovsky’s music is so little known when Russian music is so popular?
Nikolay Yakovlevich Myaskovsky was born on 20 April 1881 in an army garrison near Warsaw the son of a military engineer. The grey and depressing walls of life in a fortress foisted its power upon him, mixed with the early loss of his mother and his elder brother. The trials of his early years imposed on Myaskovsky the characteristics of a reclusive personality with a dislike of the crowd. His aunt who acted as his foster mother proselytized her religious views although she also encouraged a love for music.
In St Petersburg, he heard Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique under the direction of Nikisch in 1896. This experience set him on the course of becoming a composer, against the wishes of his father who wished him to emulate his military career. Among the teachers at Military Engineering College was Cesar Cui, one of the Mighty Handful and he advised Myaskovsky in his musical education. Among his fellow students were poets and musicians, and he imbibed voraciously the ‘Silver Age’ in Russian art. He adored the macabre and grotesque poetry of Zinaida Gippius and set many of her poems to music. Enlisting at the conservatoire in 1906, he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov, a fellow student was the fifteen-year-old Sergey Prokofiev, beginning a life-long friendship. After writing two quartets, and several piano sonatas, in a challenge with Prokofiev he composed a symphony in the summer of 1908. It was Myaskovsky who finished first and revealed his new piece to Glazunov for approval. So much was he pleased that a scholarship was awarded him, however the First symphony would not be heard for five years.
Upon graduation in 1911 he made important contacts with the publisher Vladimir Derzhanovsky and Konstantin Saradzhev, an enthusiastic conductor of new music who premiered Stravinsky’s Symphony in E flat. By 1914 Myaskovsky had written three symphonies, all of which were richly orchestrated with boundless dreamy tunes yet containing uneasy harmonics; his gods were Wagner, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky, and the Third symphony contained a magnificent funeral march and a more complete individual style emerged. Shortly afterwards he was called up and severely wounded at Galicia. The terrible experiences of the fighting remained with him throughout his life; these were reflected often in his dark and sometimes pessimistic music.
Myaskovsky had also become one of Russia’s finest music writers and critics, writing reviews of the new and exciting music of the day. He was the first to recognize Stravinsky’s Firebird and reviewed favourably Richard Strauss and Debussy; calling La Mer ‘the most perfect piece of music in the world’. Initially welcoming the overthrow of the Tsar, he could not accept the terrible brutality of the civil war. The family home was turned into a communal flat and his father was accidently murdered in the Ukraine. He lost his foster mother, several relatives and close friends, and many of his friends went into exile. He was so shocked that nothing more came from his pen for three years, during which he abandoned his opera The Idiot based on Dostoyevsky. The silence was broken by a wave of fresh compositions all quite radical and which proved the precursors to his chef-d'oeuvre – the Sixth symphony.
In 1919 Myaskovsky helped set up the first Composers Union in Moscow long before it was formally established. In the early years of Soviet power he was influential in music publishing, and in 1921 was appointed a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire. Together with his friends Myaskovsky arranged Evenings of Contemporary Music where new compositions were played long before they were heard in public and these gatherings were attended by Klemperer, Abendroth and Walter. However politics imposed its adverse side when ‘traditional’ composers were openly denounced and many of Myaskovsky’s colleagues lost their positions and several were imprisoned. Myaskovsky was so irate that he and several fellow professors left returning only several years later when ‘normality’ had been re-established. Myaskovsky’s integrity both as a musician and colleague was among the most esteemed aspects in his personality and gained him the wide respect of composers and musicians, Shostakovich took all his newly written works to him. Myaskovsky became recognised as the musical conscience of Moscow.
Myaskovsky’s third piano sonata was totally novel for its day, and it was accepted for the ICRM festival in 1924. Several song cycles followed but these were only preambles for the symphony which had occupied him for two years. The magnificent and tragic Sixth symphony was premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in May 1924 under Russia’s’ finest maestro Nikolay Golovanov. Nicknamed the ‘Revolutionary’, however the symphony epitomises rather the terrible consequences of the revolution. This is a master work in which the composer articulates the frame of mind of his people during a period of great suffering. The dramatic opening bars shock for they evoke the state prosecutor’s speech heard by Myaskovsky at a meeting crying ‘death, death to the enemies of the revolution!’ The 65 minute symphony in four movements is of Mahlerian proportions. The vivid and enthralling symphony uses themes from French revolutionary songs La Carmagnole and Ҫa ira however these are only symbols; they are not thematic.
The ‘Dies irae’ theme from the Latin mass is interleaved in the subtext and in the finale, there enters a quotation from Boris Godunov which is the key to understanding the symphony; it comes from the pitiful yet defiant lament of the simpleton, ‘woe to Russia, woe.’ The choir sing the ancient Russian chant, ‘at the parting of the soul from the body’; quietly the music expires as if all hopes are ending. Many in the audience wept openly and the work received a fifteen-minute ovation after which the composer was given a great garland of flowers. Myaskovsky’s Sixth quickly gained a hearing in the West; the symphony was heard in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London and performed by all the major American orchestras. In Chicago the Sixth was programmed annually for seventeen seasons by the chief conductor Frederick Stock. Many of Myaskovsky’s orchestral pieces were performed by the most celebrated conductors; Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Furtwangler, Walter, Henry Wood, Ansermet, Scherchen and Klemperer. He became a familiar name to American music-lovers, for in a CBS survey, listeners nominated him among the top ten composers of the 20th century.
Myaskovsky was now writing two and sometimes three symphonies every year, certainly he was experimenting to find the optimum form of expression; late romanticism, modernism and impressionism all feature. Of these, the Tenth was both esoteric and astonishing for its darkness and quirky orchestration; it was based on Pushkin’s strange tale The Bronze Horseman where the hero is pursued by the statue of Peter the Great as depicted in a sketch by Alexander Benois. The symphony is gripping for its drama and horrifying musical account in which the composer experiments with twelve-tone notation.
Myaskovsky became the focus of hostile campaigning from ultra-left musicians, leaflets and posters attacked the ‘conservative and traditional’ composers. Students and teachers were instructed to join brigades, yet this movement buckled and the authorities were forced to back down. Among Myaskovsky’s students were Kabalevsky, Khachaturyan, Shebalin, Knipper, Muradeli and Khrennikov. New professional orchestras, notably the USSR State Symphony with Erich Kleiber preparing its’ first concerts, had been established by the late thirties and fine conductors were appearing, among whom were Kondrashin, Ivanov, Gauk and Mravinsky. The period was a ‘golden era’ for numerous diverse compositions emerged; Myaskovsky was excited by the phenomenon of Shostakovich, that and the return of Prokofiev from exile.
The Fifteenth and Sixteenth symphonies of 1936, revealed a more balanced orchestral language for Myaskovsky; it was discernible that a new wealth in expression had arrived; gone was the experimentalism, but not the novelty in writing. With the Sixteenth, the composer succeeded in marrying his individual voice with one that could gain wider recognition. Myaskovsky used a popular song dedicated to Soviet air pilots and the commemoration of the Maxim Gorky aircraft disaster in a funeral march gave the symphony a contemporary theme, but this was no bowing to cheap popularity, the orchestration was equally original and exciting. Myaskovsky wrote a violin concerto for the young David Oistrakh, yet the piece has never caught on with the world’s finest violinists. His pupil Khachaturyan picked up the idea and wrote his own violin concerto and the Myaskovsky concerto was eclipsed by the brilliant romanticism of his student’s work.
Myaskovsky reached the peak of his popularity with the 21st symphony of 1941; this was commissioned from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and contains some of his finest invention in a brief 17 minute piece which overwhelms through its dignity and graceful lyricism. The symphony quickly won success, and he was awarded the Lenin Prize on his 60th birthday. Several string quartets were composed during the 30s, all premiered by the Beethoven Quartet, the most superbly crafted being the Fifth, a genial piece reflecting the composer’s love for nature.
With the outbreak of war, Myaskovsky was exiled to the Caucasus, and found himself in the deserts of Kirghizia soon afterwards, where his health declined rapidly. After remonstrations by Shostakovich, Myaskovsky returned to Moscow and he buckled down to work in the Composers Union and State Publishing House. During this period he lost both his longstanding friend Derzhanovsky and his niece. He found sanctuary in his sorrow through writing the 24th symphony, dedicated to his colleague and among the most intensely philosophical of his symphonies. In 1944, the Cello Concerto was greeted on all sides and became one of his most successful pieces. Rostropovich played it at the Young Musicians Competition in 1945 winning the highest appreciation from the composer. Later the celebrated cellist claimed that it was through Myaskovsky he met Prokofiev and later Shostakovich in turn introduced him to Britten. Rostropovich championed the Cello Concerto and ensured his own students learn the Second Cello Sonata making it the most frequently performed of all Myaskovsky’s chamber works.
Myaskovsky suffered from unrelenting disorders; however a more grave illness lurked in the background. Nevertheless he threw himself into more work; new string quartets, old student pieces were recycled into orchestral suites and piano sonatas. The 25th symphony marked a fresh avenue of ostensibly vigorous and lively music, yet it was not celebrated among his peers. In 1947 he wrote The Kremlin at Night, a gorgeous 20 minute work for soprano, choir and orchestra. It is among his most gloriously striking and lyrical works yet it was met with bayonets by the Party. Myaskovsky was in the firing line for his cantata dealt with the sanctified figure of Stalin. Myaskovsky’s treatment of the Soviet leader was not the deified figure that Soviet propaganda deemed it to be. Following the premiere in December 1947 the work was withdrawn, the printing trashed, and a scandal emerged which led to the infamous denunciation of Soviet composers. In February 1948 the cultural emissary Zhdanov launched a diatribe of accusations against Myaskovsky, Prokofiev, Khachaturyan, Shostakovich, Shebalin, Muradeli, and Popov. Myaskovsky was criticised for his Sixth symphony which did not conform to ‘socialist realism’, that his students were educated in ‘unhealthy western influences’. The grievances against Myaskovsky were far more serious than those against Prokofiev or Shostakovich; the veteran composer was regarded as the de facto leader of these ‘unhealthy influences’.
Afterwards one musicologist divulged that the Party’s resolve was to destroy Myaskovsky’s authority in Soviet music and to punish him for being outside the Party’s control. At meetings ‘pack dogs’ of Party loyalists vehemently attacked Myaskovsky and his colleagues for their inability to create music ‘acceptable to the masses’. Khrennikov, a former pupil, declared that it was clear that the Sixth symphony disguised false ideas and was ‘anti-populist’. The latter arrived at Myaskovsky’s home demanding he apologise to Stalin, this Myaskovsky refused to do saying that his response would be through his music. Myaskovsky was the only composer to decline to kowtow to the Party. Lev Knipper stoutly defended his teacher stating that he was the respected father of Soviet symphonism and that the condemnation was weakly based. In Leningrad the conductor Mravinsky made the most vigorous defence of Soviet composers avowing he would always perform their music.
Myaskovsky was summarily dismissed from teaching and retired to his dacha where he set down to write his riposte to the Zhdanov accusations. The response was one of his most remarkable works; the 26th symphony based on Old Russian Themes. Myaskovsky had always been an agnostic yet he valued the sacred holidays, here he used spiritual chants which open each of the three movements; The cry of the wanderer, The birth of Christ, and The terror. Myaskovsky asserts his individualism and his musicianship; intertwined were themes from his finest works, and the finale is glorious. The premiere was met with almost complete silence, though Prokofiev’s wife wrote that it was astonishing, beautiful and noble in its expression. Khrennikov mocked it, averring that it was clear that some composers had not learned their lesson. The 26th symphony was never heard again for half a century.
Six months after his harangue on Soviet composers, Zhdanov died suddenly, as speedily several consequences of the infamous Party resolution vanished, Myaskovsky was invited back to teach at the Conservatoire. Yet this could never remove the dreadful shock incurred by him and other musicians; it all seemed to be a result of an inner-Party struggle for influence for those in Zhdanov’s circle were arrested and never seen again. Nonetheless one schemer would continue the campaign; Khrennikov ensured that the greater part of Myaskovsky’s works would be neglected for years afterwards.
With just two years left him, Myaskovsky wrote some of his finest masterpieces; the Second Cello Sonata was inspired by Rostropovich’s brilliant musicianship; the work is lyrical and opens with some of the most heart-rending chords he ever set down. The sonata is as if a parting with his friends expressed in the most intimate form. The valedictory 27th symphony opens with a solo plaintive woodwind joined by the strings after which the second theme enters and one senses that one is listening to the steady beat of a great human heart. The music involves the listener in a profound struggle for dignity and a noble struggle. The richness of the orchestration makes one feel uplifted as if one can surmount any worries, while the final triumphant coda is heroic and tremendously powerful ending in glorious C major. This magnificent Russian symphony is the epitaph for a courageous and defiant musician who never bowed to his own hardship and that shared with his people.
In the spring of 1950 an operation on a malignant tumour was unsuccessful, and he was able to share his last weeks with friends and former students at his beloved country home in Nikolina Gora. Myaskovsky died at his Moscow flat on 8 August 1950. In December that year, the premiere of his latest symphony received a tumultuous ovation with Gauk raising the score above his head. In what proved an astonishing about face, the symphony was awarded the Stalin Prize as was the thirteenth string quartet. Myaskovsky was treasured for his immense knowledge, his collection of scores was unique, and he challenged his students to write freely, to discover originality without copying from their peers. His undergraduates became the Soviet Union’s most exciting young composers, and they in turn continued his practice of developing independent thinking in music, those who benefited were Schnittke, Denisov, Gubaydullina and Shchedrin, some of the most radical Russian musicians of the late 20th century.
In recent years Myaskovsky’s works have been winning a new audience. All the symphonies are available, and many chamber works are being discovered by new enterprising ensembles and musicians world-wide. This year’s Edinburgh Festival is featuring an early work by Myaskovsky. The orchestral poemSilence was written during a period when he was influenced by the symbolist poets and fascinated by a new translation of Poe’s eponymous poem. In the summer of 1909 he wrote to Prokofiev: ‘suddenly, quite unexpectantly, when I had lost any hope to do something this summer, in despair I strolled near the Cathedral of Resurrection (there is a very quiet corner there, where the city noise can almost not be heard), this idea came to me and kindled itself within me, and for the past week I have been sitting here forging a tricky piece which will occupy me probably all summer and autumn; and I conceivably imagine to myself, what is this? – The tale of the Devil (by the Cathedral of Resurrection!) … The piece promises to be in musical terms monstrous– not one bright note, all darkness and melancholy, and voracious in orchestration, I have touched upon the devils in music; on stage there are screeching animals, then a hurricane, yet silence has not conquered me. […] There is not one cheerful note in the whole piece – Darkness and Terror.’ From the composer’s notes for the Moscow premiere: “Listen to me, the Devil said. The region about which I speak is an unhappy land in Libya, on the banks of the Zaira River. And there reigns neither calm, nor silence there. The waters of the river shimmer, bursting with stirring waves….The programme is conceived thus; exposition – a picture of the terrible river, the forest, the rock, the bright blood red moon, at last, the features of a man; the development – devilish experiences: the cries of the bog creatures, a storm, the disintegration of the rock and silence. The coda – despair and the man takes flight.’ Prokofiev confided in his diary: ‘Astonishingly enough, his Fairy Tale [Silence] was a great popular success, and he is himself near enough satisfied with the piece, although he declined to have it published by Zimmerman.’