FFor such a solid figure, Nikolai Myaskovsky offers surprising contradictions and paradoxes: consistent in his musical vision but uneven in his production; an individual who nevertheless fit well with the demands of socialist realism in the Soviet Union from the 1930s; a conservative with flashes of what might be called modernism throughout his creative life.
His seemingly prolific nature leaves him open to the question: can’t someone who writes 27 symphonies be this good? Yet within this canon there are expanses of first-rate music, and since he limited himself to a few genres, Myaskovsky was free to perfect his own interpretation of sonata and symphonic form. Russian-minded when he wanted to be, he was essentially international, like his lifelong friend Prokofiev.
It was Prokofiev who gave us the first vivid characterization of Myaskovsky. While their birthdays were only a week apart, ten years separated the two men – Myaskovsky was the eldest – and it is one of the anomalies of the St Petersburg Conservatory system that they found themselves in the same class when Myaskovsky showed up at the start of the 1906-07 academic year. This was shortly after the political unrest that had spread through the Conservatory, where Professor Rimsky-Korsakov was an honorable defender of workers’ rights. In his autobiography, Prokofiev describes 25-year-old Myaskovsky as arriving “in the military uniform of a lieutenant in an engineer battalion, carrying a large yellow wallet under one arm. He sported a mustache and a beard. He was always reserved, polite and calm. His reserve attracted him, and at the same time he kept people at a distance.
When was Was Nikolai Myaskovsky born?
Nikolai Myaskovsky was born in the fortified city of Novo-Georgiyevsk (now Modlin, Poland), where his father was a military engineer.
Not only reserved but subject throughout his life to depressions, Myaskovsky had a difficult upbringing. His mother died when he was nine, and in her place came a stern aunt whose religious mania forbade any play or music on weekends.
His father’s military roots meant that young Nikolai had what he called the “rather bitter” experience of the Nizhny Novgorod cadet college. His musical horizons widened when the family moved to St. Petersburg and he entered the School of Military Engineering, the least offensive option on the road to a military career for which, he wrote in his autobiography, “I had only the greatest disgust, and to which I had been doomed by family and social tradition”.
Music by Nikolai Myaskovsky
Finally, in 1907, he was able to trade three years split between two battalions of sappers for an unwavering pursuit of music at the Conservatoire. At that time, well-educated in the music of the Five or Mighty Handful – Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, MussorgskyBalakirev and Cui – and Symbolist poets like Konstantin Balmont, Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky, whose lyrics he put in his songs, he put aside the feeling of being a simple dilettante by dint of work.
In the summer of 1908, Myaskovsky and Prokofiev both embarked on their first symphonies. While Prokofiev quickly got rid of sound, salvaging only the middle slow movement material in his Piano Sonata No. 4, Myaskovsky’s work in C minor remains his official starting point. Typical of his gloomy temperament – although not all of them dark, 19 of his 27 symphonies are in minor keys – it also seemed to Prokofiev too long, prompting the young composer to compress as much as possible.
The playfulness of Prokofiev’s shorter piano pieces rubbed off onto Myaskovsky’s miniatures, eventually culminating in the six Prichudy (“Caprices”) from 1922, four of which Prokofiev the pianist recorded two years later for the Duo-Art piano reproduction company. A rare humor also surfaces in the concept, but not the ultimate tone, of Myaskovsky’s String Quartet in D minor of 1909, eventually published in 1930 as the third of his Op. 33 together. In it, he mocks the teacher-composer Lyadov bashing of Grieg with some coded musical lines (spelling out ‘Grieg’ and ‘Beware Lyadov’) and one of Grieg’s melodies as the basis for a set of variations.
Although exceptionally diplomatic in his lifelong correspondence with Myaskovsky, Prokofiev was more blunt in an October 17, 1908 diary entry: “Although I esteem Myaskovsky very highly and deeply love his songs ‘Circles’ and “Blood”, I remain convinced that he will not become a great composer: he is an extremely literate musician and his music is often beautiful, he composes a lot, but he lacks this necessary element of brilliance and irresistible originality.
by Nikolai Myaskovsky Fourth Symphony
“Often beautiful”, indeed, and incidentally, “irresistibly original”. The haunting introduction to the Fourth Symphony in E minor (1918) begins with the solo flute and then the clarinet expanding to hypnotic repetitions of Debussy’s “Pas dans la neige”, the high intervals backed by ever-increasing woodwind harmonies. striking; it is genuinely felt despair, and the dissonant clashes of chords in the slow movement open up an abyss.
by Nikolai Myaskovsky Fifth Symphony
the beginning of the Fifth Symphony Andante friendly makes a startling contrast, a pastoral summer dream, with a hint of Wagner’s forest whispers filtered through Rimsky-Korsakov’s late operatic pantheism The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.
It is not surprising that, although he had completed the Fifth in 1918, Myaskovsky had planned it much earlier, as a “relaxation”. To serve at the front in Galicia during the First World War even more unbalanced this sensitive mind; in 1917, he suffered from shell shock and, after a year spent in Revel (Tallinn, Estonia), far from the revolutionary center, he was transferred to the Naval Academy in Petrograd.
by Myaskovsky Sixth Symphony in E flat minor
His most ambitious symphony, arguably his masterpiece, is the Sixth Symphony in E flat minor, a work on which Myaskovsky essentially went from sketches in 1919 to completion in 1923.
Apparently it is “the death of a revolutionary hero and solemn honors paid by the people as a farewell”. But was that just Soviet language, and the whole work a lamentation over the losses of war and revolution? Myaskovsky was mourning the death of his father, his aunt and a close friend. The final trajectory is its most original. After the turbulence and darkness of the first two movements, it starts happily to the tunes of the French revolutionary ‘Carmagnole’ and ‘Ça ira’, appropriated by the Soviets. But grief and death creep in orchestral moans and Latin dies irae, the song of the day of wrath for the dead. A second collapse leads to a choral treatment of the moans and the emergence of a melody of supreme beauty coupled with words about the separation of soul and body – of allegedly orthodox origin, but better known in a decor by the blind Celtic harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). The epilogue brings a return of the slow-moving melody and an emergence into a major light as moving as that at the end of Rachmaninoff’s “choral symphony.” The bells.
Myaskovsky’s Tenth Symphony,
Myaskovsky’s darker chromatic tension became a double-edged sword: after pushing the piano writing to the limits of his impressive Second and Third Sonatas, he was able to turn the chromaticism into over-the-top bluster, as in the Tenth Symphony , plus a symphonic poem illustrating the tempest and torment of the protagonist in Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, or to a nightmare bordering on atonal, as in the 13th Symphony, also in one movement and decidedly pessimistic. The medium of the string quartet to which he turned more decisively in his middle years allowed for greater clarity and levity.
The 1930s and 1940s
From the 1930s the composer had to align himself more closely with the newly concocted optimistic principles of socialist realism, but he did so on his own terms, refining his essentially romantic style. The more abstract symphonies sound like English (or international) pastoral; and Prokofiev’s definition of the twelfth in his April 1933 diary—”mean, Glazunovian, square, simple in the sense of the old simplicity, not the new”—could serve as a verdict for many of the later works. During World War II, when the two composers as evacuees came into contact with the folk music of Kabardino-Balkiria, Prokofiev continued his “new simplicity” in the vibrant Second String Quartet, while in his Symphony No. 23 (“Symphony-Suite”), Myaskovsky’s adoption of folk themes – including one that Prokofiev also used – was exactly the same as that of Russian composers 80 years earlier.
An honorable and in some ways courageous man who managed to live out much of his time under Soviet rule, Myaskovsky refused to play any part in the scandalous “show trials” of so-called formalism in music – in d’ in other words, whatever it was was neither brilliant nor simple – which ruined the lives of the great composers denounced; if he had nothing to show as audaciously original as some of Prokofiev and ShostakovichRecent works by Myaskovsky, Myaskovsky did not escape their fate.
Like Prokofiev, he did not live to see the end of Stalin, dying of cancer in 1950 with his recently unperformed 27th Symphony. It is a typical product of its last years – more evocative of the first decade of the 20th century than of the 1940s, a partial return to the pastoral world of the Fifth crowned by a processional finale a la Rimsky or Borodin, but with a a bittersweet quality and sincerity that remained the hallmarks of much of this excellent composer’s musical life.
When Is Nikolai Myaskovsky dead?
In 1950 and suffering from cancer, Myaskovsky died in Moscow, aged 69, leaving several works unfinished. His 27th Symphony and String Quartet No. 13 received Stalin Prizes posthumously.
Nikolai Myaskovsky’s style of composition
Although sometimes dense, and rarely experimental or radical, its score has individuality in the woodwind writing (for example the opening of Symphony No. 4) and the darker instrumental colors used in the chamber music passages. Low-pitched instruments such as the contrabassoon are often used strikingly, and there are occasional breaks from conventional forces – the 19th Symphony is reserved for brass bands.
Although he came of age in the first decade of the 20th century, unlike Stravinsky, Myaskovsky remained faithful to the ideals of the romantic symphony, blending the gloomy style of Tchaikovsky with the solid constructions of Glazunov (above). Modernism occasionally surfaces, most strikingly in Symphony No. 13.
Intrigued by sonata form, Myaskovsky rarely shook the foundations like Shostakovich, only occasionally deviating from the standard format, as in the finale of his Sixth Symphony. His symphonies range from one movement to five, although standard scherzos and slow movements are often a feature.
Given Myaskovsky’s gloomy outlook, his tendency to avalanche notes can be oppressive; but when composing for smaller groups of instruments, its effect can be surprisingly original.
Top illustration by Matt Herring