Tune in every day at one o'clock when host Chris Wolf will feature a work by the Russian and Soviet composer who's sometimes referred to as the "Father of the Soviet Symphony".
Born in Modlin Fortress near Warsaw--which was part of the Russian Empire-- April 20, 1881, Nikolai Myaskovsky was long recognized as an individualist even by the Soviet establishment.
In the 1920s the critic Boris Asafyev commented that he was "not the kind of composer the Revolution would like; he reflects life not through the feelings and spirit of the masses, but through the prism of his personal feelings. He is a sincere and sensible artist, far from 'life's enemy', as he has been portrayed occasionally. He speaks not only for himself, but for many others".
Stung by the many accusations in the Soviet press of "individualism, decadence, pessimism, formalism and complexity", Myaskovsky wrote to Asafyev in 1940, "Can it be that the psychological world is so foreign to these people?"
When somebody described Zhdanov's decree against "formalism" to him as "historic", he is reported to have retorted "Not historic – hysterical".
Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Myaskovsky wrote his Second Cello Sonata late in life, described him as "a humorous man, a sort of real Russian intellectual, who in some ways resembled Turgenev".
Myaskovsky was the son of an engineer officer in the Russian army. After the death of his mother the family was brought up by his father's sister, Yelikonida Konstantinovna Myaskovskaya, who had been a singer at the Saint Petersburg Opera. The family moved to Saint Petersburg in his teens.
Though he learned piano and violin, he was discouraged from pursuing a musical career, and entered the military. However, a performance of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony conducted by Arthur Nikisch in 1896 inspired him to become a composer. In 1902 he completed his training as an engineer, like his father. As a young subaltern with a Sappers Battalion in Moscow, he took some private lessons with Reinhold Glière and when he was posted to St Petersburg he studied with Ivan Krizhanovsky as preparation for entry into the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he enrolled in 1906 and became a student of Anatoly Lyadov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
A late starter, Myaskovsky was the oldest student in his class but soon became firm friends with the youngest, Sergei Prokofiev, and they remained friends throughout the older man's life. At the Conservatory, they shared a dislike of their professor Anatoly Lyadov, which, since Lyadov disliked the music of Edvard Grieg, led to Myaskovsky's choice of a theme by Grieg for the variations with which he closed his String Quartet No. 3.
Tchaikovsky was an early influence on Myaskovsky's emerging personal style. In fact, it's strongly echoed in the first of his surviving symphonies (in C minor, Op. 3, 1908/1921), which was his Conservatory graduation piece.
Here is the State Symphony Orchestra of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR performing the lento, ma non troppo from that first symphony.. Gennady Rozhdestvensky is the conductor.
Alexander Scriabin, was another influence who comes more to the fore in Myaskovsky's First Piano Sonata in D minor, Op. 6 (1907–10), described by Glenn Gould as "perhaps one of the most remarkable pieces of its time".
Here is Murray McLachlan perfroming the second movement of the sonata.
And his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 15 of 1914, a turbulent and lugubrious work in two large movements.
Myaskovsky graduated in 1911 and afterwards taught in Saint Petersburg, where he also developed a supplementary career as a penetrating musical critic. (He was one of the most intelligent and supportive advocates in Russia for the music of Igor Stravinsky, though the story that Stravinsky dedicated The Rite of Spring to Myaskovsky is untrue).
Called up during World War I, he was wounded and suffered shell-shock on the Austrian front, then worked on the naval fortifications at Tallinn. During this period he produced two diametrically opposed works, his Symphony No. 4 (Op. 17, in E minor) and his Symphony No. 5 (Op. 18, in D major).
Here is Evgeny Svetlanov conducting the State Academic Orchestra in a performance of the third movement of Myaskovky's Symphony No. 4.
Here is the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra led by Edward Downes with the second movement of Myaskovsky's Symphony No. 5, D major, Op. 18.
The next few years saw the violent death of his father, who as an ex-Tsarist general was murdered by Red Army soldiers while waiting for a train in the winter of 1918–19, and the death of his aunt, to whom he was closely attached, in the winter of 1919–20. His brother-in-law, the husband of his sister Valentina Yakovlevna, had committed suicide before the War because of financial troubles.
Myaskovsky himself served in the Red Army from 1917 to 1921; in the latter year he was appointed to the teaching staff of the Moscow Conservatory and membership of the Composers' Union. Thereafter he lived in Moscow, sharing an apartment with his widowed sister Valentina and her daughter.
In the 1920s and 1930s Myaskovsky was the leading composer in the USSR dedicated to developing basically traditional, sonata-based forms. He wrote no operas—though in 1918 he planned one based on Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, with a libretto by Pierre Souvtchinsky; but he would eventually write a total of 27 symphonies (plus three sinfoniettas, three concertos and works in other orchestral genres), 13 string quartets, 9 piano sonatas as well as many miniatures and vocal works.
Through his devotion to these forms, and the fact that he always maintained a high standard of craftsmanship, he was sometimes referred to as 'the musical conscience of Moscow'.
His continuing commitment to musical modernism was shown by the fact that along with Alexander Mosolov, Gavriil Popov and Nikolai Roslavets, Myaskovsky was one of the leaders of the Association for Contemporary Music. While he remained in close contact with Prokofiev during the latter's years of exile from the USSR, he never followed him there.
Myaskovsky's reaction to the events of 1917–21 inspired his Symphony No. 6 (1921–1923, rev. 1947—this is the version that is almost always played or recorded) his only choral symphony and the longest of his 27 symphonies, sets a brief poem (in Russian though the score allows Latin alternatively—the soul looking at the body it has abandoned.) The finale contains quite a few quotes—the Dies Irae theme, as well as French revolutionary tunes.
In the 1920s and 1930s Myaskovsky's symphonies were quite frequently played in Western Europe and the USA. His works were issued by Universal Edition, one of Europe's most prestigious publishers. In 1935, a survey made by CBS of its radio audience asking the question "Who, in your opinion, of contemporary composers will remain among the world's great in 100 years?" placed Myaskovsky in the top ten along with Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Ravel, de Falla and Fritz Kreisler.
As professor of composition at Moscow Conservatory from 1921 until his death, Myaskovsky exercised an important influence on his many pupils. The young Shostakovich considered leaving Leningrad to study with him, and those who did become his students were eventually to include such composers as Aram Khachaturian, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Vissarion Shebalin, Rodion Shchedrin, German Galynin, Andrei Eshpai, Alexei Fedorovich Kozlovsky, Alexander Lokshin, Boris Tchaikovsky, and Evgeny Golubev, a teacher and prolific composer whose students included Alfred Schnittke.
Despite his personal feelings about the Stalinist regime, Myaskovsky did his best not to engage in overt confrontation with the Soviet state. While some of his works refer to contemporary themes, they do not do so in a programmatic or propagandistic way. The Symphony No. 12 was inspired by a poem about the collectivization of farming.
Here is Robert Stankovsky conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the second movement of Myaskovsky's Symphony No. 12
While No. 16 was prompted by the crash of the huge airliner Maxim Gorky and was known under the Soviets as the Aviation Symphony. This symphony, sketched immediately after the disaster and premiered in Moscow on October 24,1936, includes a big funeral march as its slow movement, and the finale is built on Myaskovsky's own song for the Red Air Force, 'The Aeroplanes are Flying'. The Salutation Overture was dedicated to Stalin on his sixtieth birthday.
Myaskovsky never married and was shy, sensitive and retiring; Pierre Souvtchinsky believed that a "brutal youth (in military school and service in the war)" left him "a fragile, secretive, introverted man, hiding some mystery within. It was as if his numerous symphonies provide a convenient if not necessary refuge in which he could hide and transpose his soul into sonorities".