In his lifetime Nikolai Myaskovsky was the Soviet Union’s most honoured symphonist, yet his heartfelt music expressed a personal tragedy, says David Nice
For so solid a figure, Nikolai Myaskovsky offers surprising contradictions and paradoxes: consistent in his musical outlook but uneven in his output; an individual who nevertheless chimed well with the Soviet Union’s Socialist Realist demands from the 1930s onwards; a conservative with flashes of what might be called modernism throughout his creative life.
His apparently prolific nature leaves him open to question: surely anyone who writes 27 symphonies can’t actually be that good? Yet within that canon there are stretches of first-rate music, and since he confined himself to only a few genres, Myaskovsky was free to perfect his own take on sonata and symphonic form. Russian in spirit when he wanted to be, he was essentially international, like his lifelong friend Prokofiev.
It is Prokofiev who has given us the first vivid characterisation of Myaskovsky. Though their birthdays were only a week apart, ten years separated the two men – Myaskovsky was the older – and it is one of the anomalies of the system at the St Petersburg Conservatory that they found themselves in the same class when Myaskovsky turned up at the beginning of the academic year of 1906-07. This was shortly after the political unrest which had spread to the Conservatory, where Professor Rimsky-Korsakov was an honourable supporter of workers’ rights. In his autobiography, Prokofiev describes the 25-year-old Myaskovsky as arriving ‘in the army uniform of a lieutenant in an engineers’ battalion, carrying a big yellow portfolio under one arm. He sported a moustache and beard. He was always reserved, polite and quiet. His reserve attracted one to him, and at the same time he held people at a distance.’
When was Nikolai Myaskovsky born?
Nikolai Myaskovsky was born in the fortress town of Novo-Georgiyevsk (now Modlin, Poland), where his father was a military engineer.
Not only reserved but prone 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 all games or music at weekends.
His father’s military roots meant that young Nikolai had what he called the ‘rather bitter’ experience of cadet college in Nizhny Novgorod. His musical horizons expanded when the family moved to St Petersburg and he entered the School of Military Engineering, the least offensive option on the path to a military career for which, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘I had nothing but the strongest distaste, and to which I had been doomed by family and social tradition’.
Nikolai Myaskovsky's music
Finally, in 1907, he was able to exchange three years divided between two sappers battalions for a wholehearted pursuit of music at the Conservatory. By this time well schooled in the music of the Five or Mighty Handful – Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Musorgsky, Balakirev and Cui – and symbolist poets like Konstantin Balmont, Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky, whose words he set in his songs, he threw aside the feeling that he was a mere dilettante by sheer hard work.
In the summer of 1908, Myaskovsky and Prokofiev both embarked on their first symphonies. While Prokofiev quickly discarded his, only salvaging material from the middle slow movement in his Piano Sonata No. 4, Myaskovsky’s C minor work remains his official starting-point. Typical of his lugubrious temperament – though not all gloomy, 19 of his 27 symphonies are in minor keys – it also struck Prokofiev as too long-winded, prompting the younger composer to compress as much as possible.
The playfulness in Prokofiev’s shorter piano pieces rubbed off on Myaskovsky’s miniatures, eventually culminating in the six Prichudy (‘Caprices’) of 1922, four of which Prokofiev the pianist recorded two years later for the Duo-Art reproducing piano company. A rare humour also surfaces in the concept, though not the ultimate tone, of Myaskovsky’s D minor String Quartet of 1909, eventually published in 1930 as the third of his Op. 33 set. In it he mocks tutor-composer Lyadov’s disparagement of Grieg with a couple of coded musical lines (spelling out ‘Grieg’ and ‘Beware Lyadov’) and one of Grieg’s melodies as basis for a set of variations.
Though unusually diplomatic in his lifelong correspondence with Myaskovsky, Prokofiev was more blunt in a diary entry of 17 October 1908: ‘Although I rate Myaskovsky very highly, and dearly love his songs “Circles” and “Blood”, I remain convinced that he will not become a great composer: he is a supremely literate musician and his music is often beautiful, he composes a great deal, but he lacks that necessary element of brilliance and compelling originality.’
Nikolai Myaskovsky's Fourth Symphony
‘Often beautiful’, indeed, and in passing, ‘of compelling originality’. The haunting introduction of the Fourth Symphony in E minor (1918) begins with solo flute and then clarinet enlarging on the hypnotic repetitions of Debussy’s ‘Footsteps in the Snow’, the keening intervals supported by ever more striking woodwind harmonies; this is authentically felt despair, and the dissonant clashes of chords in the slow movement open up an abyss.
Nikolai Myaskovsky's Fifth Symphony
The beginning of the Fifth Symphony’s Andante amabile makes a surprising contrast, a pastoral dream of summer, with a dash of Wagner’s forest murmurs as filtered through the pantheism of Rimsky-Korsakov’s late opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.
It comes as no surprise that, though he completed the Fifth in 1918, Myaskovsky had planned it much earlier, as a ‘relaxation’. Serving at the front in Galicia during the First World War further knocked this sensitive spirit out of kilter; by 1917 he was suffering from shell shock, and at the end of a year spent in Revel (Tallinn, Estonia), some way from the revolutionary centre, he was transferred to the Naval College in Petrograd.
Myaskovsky's Sixth Symphony in E flat minor
His most ambitious symphony, arguably his masterpiece, is the Sixth Symphony in E flat minor, work on which essentially took Myaskovsky from sketches in 1919 to completion in 1923.
Ostensibly it concerns ‘the death of a revolutionary hero and the solemn honours paid to him by the people in farewell’. Yet was this mere Sovietspeak, and the whole work a lament for the losses of the war and the revolution? Myaskovsky was mourning the deaths of his father, his aunt and a close friend. The finale’s trajectory is his most original. After the turbulence and shadows of the first two movements, it starts cheerfully with the tunes of the French revolutionary ‘Carmagnole’ and ‘Ça ira’, appropriated by the Soviets. But grief and death intrude in orchestral wails and the Latin Dies irae, the day-of-wrath chant for the dead. A second collapse leads to a choral treatment of the wails and the emergence of a supremely beautiful melody associated with words about the separation of soul and body – allegedly Orthodox in origin, but best known in a setting by the blind Celtic harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). The epilogue brings a return of the slow-movement melody and an emergence into major-key light that’s as moving as the one at the end of Rachmaninov’s ‘choral symphony’ The Bells.
Myaskovsky’s Tenth Symphony,
Myaskovsky’s darker, chromatic strain became a two-edged sword: having strained piano writing to the limits in his impressive Second and Third Sonatas, he could turn chromaticism to overloaded bluster, as in the Tenth Symphony, more of a symphonic poem depicting the storm and the protagonist’s torment in Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman, or to a nightmarishness verging on the atonal, as in the 13th Symphony, also in one movement and uncompromisingly pessimistic. The string-quartet medium to which he turned more resolutely in his middle years allowed for a greater clarity and airiness.
The 1930s and 1940s
From the 1930s onwards, the composer had to come more into line with the newly cooked-up optimistic tenets 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 diary for April 1933 – ‘average, Glazunovian, four-square, simple in the sense of the old simplicity, not the new’ – could stand as a verdict for quite a few of the later works. During the Second World War, when both composers as evacuees came into contact with the folk music of Kabardino-Balkiria, Prokofiev pursued 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 which Prokofiev also used – was exactly the same as that of Russian composers 80 years earlier.
An honourable and in some ways courageous man who managed to live his life for much of his time under the Soviet regime, Myaskovsky refused to play any part in the disgraceful ‘show trials’ of so-called formalism in music – in other words, anything that was not bright and simple – which blighted the lives of the major composers denounced; though he had nothing to show as daringly original as some of Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s recent works, 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 recent 27th Symphony unperformed. It is a typical product of his later years – more redolent of the first decade of the 20th century than the 1940s, a partial return to the pastoral world of the Fifth capped by a Rimsky- or Borodin-style processional-finale, but with a bittersweet quality and a sincerity which remained hallmarks throughout so much of this fine composer’s musical life.
When did Nikolai Myaskovsky die?
In 1950 and suffering from cancer, Myaskovsky died in Moscow,aged 69, leaving several works unfinished. His 27th Symphony and String Quartet No. 13 are awarded posthumous Stalin Prizes.
Nikolai Myaskovsky composing style
Though at times dense, and rarely experimental or radical, his scoring has individuality in the woodwind writing (e.g. the opening of Symphony No. 4) and the darker instrumental colours used in chamber music-like passages. Lower instruments such as contrabassoon are often strikingly used, and there are occasional breaks with conventional forces – the 19th Symphony is for brass band only.
Though he came of age in the first decade of the 20th century, unlike Stravinsky Myaskovsky remained true to the ideals of the Romantic symphony, mixing Tchaikovsky’s lugubrious style 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 departing from the standard format, as in the finale of his Sixth Symphony. His symphonies range from one movement to five, though standard scherzos and slow movements are often a feature.
Given Myaskovsky’s dark outlook, his tendency towards welters of notes can be oppressive; but when he scores for smaller groups of instruments, its effect can be strikingly original.
Top illustration by Matt Herring
David Nice is a regular critic and writer for BBC Music Magazine and contributor for BBC Radio 3. He is a former music critic of The Guardian and The Sunday Correspondent and is an expert in Russian music, having released an in-depth biography of Prokofiev for Yale University Press in 2003. Nice has also published studies of Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Stravinsky and the history of opera.