Gregor Tassie "Nikolay Myaskovsky - the Conscience of Russian Music"

5 March 2021
5 March, 2021

An essay by Gregor Tassie, the author of the homonymic monograph about N.  Myaskovsky (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

Nikolay Myaskovsky was born in 1881 and during the course of his 69 years lived through two world wars, three revolutions, civil war, war communism, and was denounced as a formalist and decadent.

Born into a military family, he was supposed to follow his father into the army, yet his interests were books, nature and music. After completing military studies, at 25 he entered the St Petersburg Conservatoire sharing a desk with Sergey Prokofiev who became a life-long friend. Myaskovsky was hugely influenced by hearing Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony and became friends with many leading symbolist poets and artists. When he played Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils in his audition at the Conservatoire, Rimsky Korsakov writhed in annoyance at having to listen ‘to outrageous modernism.’

Myaskovsky was drawn to philosophy and nature most of all in his music and his first symphonies and sonatas reflect influence from Scriabin and Tchaikovsky, before the First World War his music was already being performed in Moscow and St Petersburg. Called up to fight in the army, he was injured in the Western Ukraine and nevertheless found another career in his hospital bed as a music critic. Myaskovsky first declared the importance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, and wrote about Schoenberg and the New Vienna School and of Roslavets’s new synthetic chord.

The 1917 revolutions had a terrible effect on Myaskovsky; his father was shot by Red Army troops when travelling to Crimea with his new wife. His aunt who had brought him up after losing his mother died in Petrograd. These events influenced his first major work – the Sixth Symphony. This became the first work to reflect on the revolution. The opening begins with a terrible chord which immediately arrests the listener, similar to Beethoven’s Eroica, however this symphony is not about the fate of a leader like Napoleon. The opening chords are based on the speech of Krylenko shouting ‘Death, death, death to the enemies of the revolution!’ The chanting of this phrase by the red army soldiers and workers portrayed revolutionary terror among many bystanders. The following music is of great tension and stress, themes which recur throughout the symphony.

Myaskovsky uses music from French revolutionary songs La carmagnole and Ca ira, yet in the later music he uses another citation, in the second movement after a swirling F minor idea portraying an evil presence, the strings become muted and we hear the orchestral citation from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

 ‘And darkness will fall, terrible darkness, Impenetrable darkness,

Woe, woe unto Russia!

Weep, weep, Russian folk, Hungry folk.’

The third movement reflects on all that has gone before, an interregnum, but the finale bursts out singing revolutionary motifs, but then the Latin chant Dies irae emerges, and the Sixth closes with the choir singing the old Russian chant At the Parting of the Soul from the Body.

‘Departing, yea bidding farewell.

And lo, thou, o soul, goeth to the judgement of God.

And thou, o body, resteth in the damp Mother Earth.’

As the choir sings the final words, the music slowly dies away. At the premiere in the Bolshoi Theatre, the audience stormed to the stage applauding, crying bravo, many were in tears saying this was the finest symphony since Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. The Sixth reflects on the tragedy of the Russian intelligentsia after the revolution in which several millions left Russia including some of the finest musicians, Chaliapin, Prokofiev, Koussevitzky, Glazounov, Lourie, Medtner, Grechaninov and many others.

Myaskovsky’s Sixth was quickly performed in Vienna, New York, Chicago by the world’s finest conductors. In Chicago, the Sixth was played every season until 1942. More symphonies became popular in the West, every year, two, and sometimes three symphonies emerged from Myaskovsky. He wrote these in pairs; one extrovert, the other inward looking. The Tenth was inspired by Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman which portrays the little man being terrorised by an evil statue figure. Other themes reflect on his love of nature in the Eighth, and Fourteenth symphonies.

In 1921 Myaskovsky was appointed as a Professor at the Moscow Conservatoire from which he taught three generations of composers including more than eighty musicians including Khachaturyan, Kabalevsky, Mosolov, Knipper, Shebalin, Boris Chaykovsky, Yeshpai, Peiko and many others. All of these composers’ music is quite different, Myaskovsky taught his students not to copy or follow other composers styles. He taught students in the Beethoven sonatas and symphonies and Tchaikovsky who he adored, but never plagiarise other composers. All of his students wrote different styles, Mosolov was a modernist, while Khachaturyan was late romantic, while Kabalevsky wrote in different styles. Myaskovsky became regarded as the musical conscience of Russian music because of this independence of thought.

In 1919 Myaskovsky and his colleagues set up the Association of Contemporary Musicians which sought to promote new music from both Europe and of modern Russian music in Moscow and Leningrad. Bartok, Milhaud, Berg, Hindemith and Casella visited for concerts of their own music and major performers arrived such as Ansermet, Abendroth, Klemperer, Kleiber, and Fritz Kreisler. In 1925 Myaskovsky travelled to Vienna to sign an agreement for Soviet composers music to be published by Universal Verlag in the West.

The early thirties were briefly an era of enlightenment for the arts, some thirty professional orchestras were launched, many new musicians appeared and won fame in the West; David Oistrakh, Emil and Elena Gilels, Leonid Kogan, Daniil Shafran, Miron Polyakin, music competitions introduced a new generation of conductors Mravinsky, Kondrashin, Khaikhin, Rakhlin, Paverman and there were outstanding singers and dancers at the Bolshoi and Leningrad theatres such as Ulanova, Dudinskaya, Sergeyev, Kozlovsky, and Lemeshev. Shostakovich’s stage works were being performed world-wide and Myaskovsky became the most popular modern composer in the USA some 80 of his works performed there against some 30 of Shostakovich.  This all changed in 1936 when Pravda denounced ‘formalism’ in music.

If Shostakovich changed, Myaskovsky continued as before, his 10th, 11th and 13th modernist symphonies were performed once only and disappeared into the archives for half a century. Mosolov was his favourite student, and despite enjoying a successful career, maintained contact. In 1937 Mosolov was arrested and tried for anti-Soviet acts and sentenced to 8 years in the penal camps. Myaskovsky and Gliere appealed to Kalinin because Mosolov was trustworthy and was only guilty of fighting in a restaurant and been scandalised by the media. This appeal was successful and Mosolov was released after 8 months in custody. Of course, Mosolov was a changed man but Myaskovsky restarted his career suggesting he write a Concerto for Harp and other works. Myaskovsky was a consultant at the Moscow Philharmonic and helped get Mosolov’s music performed and also back in the Composers’ Union. There were other assistance given for students in their housing and welfare.

Myaskovsky loved nature and at every opportunity he went to the Moscow countryside where he had a room at his friend Pavel Lamm’s dacha at Nikolina Gora. There Myaskovsky knew every part of the forests and fields of the area, he knew when and where the best mushrooms could be found, he discovered his own paths through the trees and would mark them for his friends. In one of his symphonies, the Sixteenth, he portrayed the calling out to each other of two girls in a lyrical passage given to the woodwind of the orchestra. There were other similar evocations in his string quartets and sonatas.

Myaskovsky wrote more than 150 songs and romances from his early years, based on symbolists and other romantic poets of the 19th and 20th centuries. Sadly because some of these poets were banned in Soviet times, only in recent years have they become better known. They occupy the same world of Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky and have a stunning beauty all of their own.

The appearance of outstanding interpreters for his music allowed him to collaborate on many of his works, in the thirties he developed a strong friendship with the young Kondrashin who often visited him for discussions about music, Kondrashin was attracted to the symphonies and often helped in cleaning the orchestration. Even Mahler (who was a great conductor) found that he had to spend time on ensuring that the brass or percussion didn’t drown out the woodwind or violins and stopping the themes to be heard clearly. Kondrashin pointed out areas where orchestration could be less congested and allow the music to be better played by the orchestra.

After writing his First Symphony, Shostakovich showed all his most important works to Myaskovsky, often travelling especially from Leningrad to Moscow to see him for consultation. Likewise, Prokofiev shared all his compositions with Myaskovsky. Myaskovsky’s views on music became the most treasured opinion among Soviet composers. Shostakovich continued showing his new music to Myaskovsky through until the Violin Concerto of 1948.

Prokofiev when he was still living in France tried to get Myaskovsky to come and give lectures in Paris and spend a holiday there, and despite arranging visas, Myaskovsky never went there. There were other opportunities to go to the West, but after the fortnight in Vienna in 1925 where he found himself lonely and homesick and quite out of sorts, language was not a problem as he knew and spoke French and German. Back in Moscow, his students awaited him and there were his sisters who cared for him. Myaskovsky never married and there were no children. When Prokofiev and other friends returned from the West, they brought him coloured neck ties, aftershave and cotton shirts; he liked to dress well yet lived a humble lifestyle scorning society and sticking to his almost daily concertgoing. Away from the classroom, he would read scores (he possessed a huge library of scores) and read his favourite writers including Dostoyevsky and other 19th century writers. Rostropovich called him a character from a novel by Turgenev. At concerts, he always occupied his favourite seat at the central rear part of the stalls where he could make a quick exit without being annoyed by music lovers.

Myaskovsky’s health declined during the Second World War when he and Prokofiev were exiled to the Caucasus first at Nalchik where he finished his Twenty-Second Symphony (his response to the outbreak of the war) and his next symphony based on Kabardinian folk music. Both of these were popular during the war in the USA. Later he had to go to Central Asia in a terrible journey in difficult conditions, describing it as worse than ‘Dante’s inferno.’ He stayed at the city of Frunze for several months until he could get recalled to Moscow in late 1942. In Central Asia he suffered the first signs of the illness which would later take his life. His close friend Derzhanovsky had died near Moscow and other friends and former students had lost their lives during the war. The Cello Concerto reflects some of his finest music, part lamenting on the sadness of the war and post-war uncertainty.

The last five years were often spent In hospital, on one occasion his friend the conductor Golovanov didn’t recognise him when he saw him in the ward so badly had he declined in wellbeing. Nevertheless he still was writing, and among his last works, there emerged several masterpieces; the last three symphonies, the Cantata Kremlin at Night, and the Thirteenth Quartet. Apart from composing, he continued to teach, but more of his time was spent on auditions of new music and consultations.

There were indications in public life that the authorities were set to launch another tirade against leading people in the arts, Akhmatova, Eisenstein and others were condemned for ‘formalism and decadent art’, worse of all Zhdanov called Akhmatova a whore. It was only a matter of time before musicians were under attack. After the successful premiere of Myaskovsky’s cantata Kremlin at Night, the score based on the symbolist poet Vasilyev, a party official pointed out to the highest level of the Bolshevik Party the negativity of the texts chosen by Myaskovsky. ‘The text and music of the composition not only do not open up the image of {Stalin], but distort him in a point in time…The composer uses an unsuccessful, melodically tarnished chant as the principal musical themes.’ Shepilov who authored this letter to Zhdanov was an official who had recently lost a higher position in the party structure and sought promotion through pointing out these ‘political errors’ to the leadership. This letter was dated December 1947. Only a few weeks later, a meeting was arranged at which all composers were invited to discuss the errors of contemporary Soviet composers. Another theme for attack was the opera The Great Friendship written by a Myaskovsky student, Vano Muradeli.

In the resolution published in Pravda in February 1948, Myaskovsky, Prokofiev and most of Myaskovsky’s former students were listed as being ‘formalists’; Mosolov, Khachaturian, Shebalin, and Muradeli, plus Popov and Shostakovich. The process which extended through to April for the Composers’ Union Congress all the offending composers were invited to repent their ways, however the only composer who refused was Myaskovsky, and this despite many phone calls and two visitations by Khrennikov the new leader of the Composers Union, and former student of Myaskovsky. All the other composers apologised, Myaskovsky instead wrote his Twenty-Sixth Symphony which cited old Slavonic chants in its score and got the rebuke that it was ‘miserable.’ The three movements are subtitled, The Cry of the Wanderer, The Birth of Christ, and The Terror. Myaskovsky uses the Dies irae and a theme from his early sonnet from Michelangelo from 1909. The one and only performance impressed Prokofiev who liked it ‘very, very much.’

Myaskovsky was already burdened by declining health and nevertheless he looked over many of his old student works revising them, together with the Sixth Symphony scoring a version without choir. His last two master pieces were the Thirteenth String Quartet which is most successful chamber work, and the valedictory Twenty-Seventh Symphony. The final symphony opens on a lamenting theme, but soon that theme is cast aside and as Kabalevsky said, ‘the three movements of the symphony ring out as if an interrupted march to light, to the resolution of happiness and a contented life. And how naturally and organically there came the sun-drenched melodies in the finale, reminding one of the famous Russian chorus, “Glory”.’ It is remarkable that Myaskovsky, already a dying man could write such a symphony with the pulse of life coursing through it. Myaskovsky was modest through to the last, when the conductor Alexander Gauk asked him for the orchestrated manuscript, Myaskovsky declined saying that he can see it later, as if wanting to have it performed posthumously. 

In his last year, a letter fell on his desk asking for his advice on which composers they should study, Myaskovsky replied that they should listen to Prokofiev, and to Shostakovich, but as far as himself not to bother so much. The author of that letter was Yevgeny Svetlanov who would become the first to perform and record all of Myaskovsky’s orchestral works for posterity. Against adversity of his life, Myaskovsky died happy having achieved success as a great composer. Throughout his career, he had succeeded to preserve his self-respect and be a great composer, despite great difficulties, and most of all continue the symphonic narrative carrying forward the spirit of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, not through writing music which moved his listeners but as Mahler stated, ‘the symphony must be like the world – it must embrace everything’. The significance of Myaskovsky’s symphonies was in reflecting the suffering and spirit of Russia in all its greatness and tragedy, its hopes and joys.


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