A few weeks ago Amphissa sent me a collection of recordings of Myaskovsky. I knew Myaskovsky, head his Sixth Symphon, “something else” and his cello concerto but to have a pile of selected CDs by a great aficionado of the Myaskovsky's music really helped to see a different perspective in the “Forgotten Russians”. Amphissa accompanied his CDs with a wonderful writing that I feel is too good not to be published….
Myaskovsky: The Forgotten Russian
Myaskovsky arrived in Moscow in 1906 having completed military training as a young officer. But his real love was music. He had received some training by his aunt, and had already developed into a budding composer. He began studying composition and piano with faculty at Moscow Conservatory - Gliere and Kryzhanovsky. But he was required to return to St. Petersburg to fulfill his military assignment. He enrolled for advanced military training, just so he could study music under Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov. When he completed his advanced training, he resigned from the military (to his father’s great distress) to continue in music.
Myaskovsky fell in with friends who made a point of importing as much of the music by contemporary composers as they could, and exploring avant garde music of the time, reading poetry and literature, debating the ideas of politics, philosophy and history. This breadth of exposure to ideas found expression in his compositions.
Myaskovsky developed his own voice musically very early on. His early symphonies and symphonic poems had dense textures, unusual harmonies, and potent conceptual structures. He is often remembered (if at all) for his 27 symphonies. But in fact, symphonies comprised only a third of his published works. He also wrote concerti for cello and violin, symphonic poems, 13 string quartets, 9 piano sonatas, songs, and assorted other chamber music.
This document offers a brief guide to Myaskovsky’s orchestral compositions, intended for those who are interested and looking for a place to start. It is organized by opus number, thus beginning with his most experimental works, and progressing through his lyrical period under Soviet rule.
“Silence”, op. 9 (1909-1910) is an orchestral poem based on a fable by that title written by Edgar Allan Poe. The fable upon which the piece is based is attached. In it, a Demon recounts the story of how he tormented a man in the Congo. The man was seated on a rock on the edge of a churning river. The river was bordered by water-lilies and surrounded by a forest of poisonous flowers. The man trembled in fear but did not run from the world he saw. The Demon then cast a spell that turned the world into a violent one. The winds raged. The earth shook, but the man remained, although trembling. The Demon then cast a spell of silence. The Earth ceased to move. The wind stopped, as did the water. There was complete silence. The man stood and strained to hear something. The man was then overcome with terror and "fled afar off, in haste."
Myaskovsky was called to the front in 1914 and wrote no music during WWI. When he returned, he was shell-shocked and suffering from PTSD. His 4th Symphony, completed in 1918 was a deeply emotional piece, dark with the horror of war, yet fascinating in its powerful imagery. But, as he himself explained, Symphony No. 5 in D major, op. 18, completed immediately afterward in the same year, was a more optimistic piece. This symphony is filled with celebration and engaging melodies, intermixed with some of his signature complex harmonies, to create a symphony that picks up where Tchaikovsky left off, progressing through Scriabin to achieve his own unique voice.
The 5th symphony was a genuine sensation throughout Europe. Myaskovsky was hailed as (finally) the Russian successor to Tchaikovsky. There have been quite a few recordings of this symphony over the years. I prefer the first recording, by Ivanov in 1978. Kondrashin would be a good alternative, if you can find it. Rozhdestvensky is 5 minutes faster than Ivanov and sounds rushed; Svetlanov is 6 minutes longer and drags terribly, and Downes with the BBC Philharmonic sounds far too British to me.
The 5th symphony opens with an extraordinarily enchanting melody. See if you can place it.
It was another 4 years before Myaskovsky finally completed his Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, op. 23. By now, Russia had not only suffered through the great war, but also the terrible progression of the Revolution from idealistic change to deadly civil war. Myaskovsky’s father was shot and killed before his eyes, his aunt died shortly thereafter.
The symphony opens with a great dissonant shout, originating he said from hearing a prominent official shouting at a mass rally “Death! Death to the enemies of the Revolution!” One of the important influences on Myaskovsky’s conception of this symphony was the Belgian poet Verhaeren’s “The Dawns,” which conveyed the idea that revolution requires martyrs in order to succeed. In “The Dawns,” the revolutionary main character dies and the people pay homage to him. Myaskovsky said that these ideas established the conception of the 6th symphony. But it is, in fact, much more than that. The symphony is a memorial to those who had died in the turmoil of war and revolution, expressing the anger and passion, fervor and fear, sorrow and hope.
The final movement incorporates two French revolutionary songs, their joyful voices resounding victory. But it is hollow victory. The reality re-emerges. The Dies Irae provides a ground for memorial. A song of Russian religious dissidents becomes the motif. And the entry of the chorus singing is a most powerful culmination:
Of the Separation of the Soul from the Body
What have we seen? A wonder of wonders,
A wonder of wonders, a dead body.
And the soul was departing the body,
Departing, yea bidding farewell.
And lo, thou, o soul, goeth to the judgment of God,
And thou, o body, resteth in the damp Mother-earth.
Myaskovsky’s 6th symphony is one of the great symphonies of the 20th century. It too was a sensation when it premiered under the baton of Golovanov. It has been recorded to date six times (a seventh is being released as this is written). Of these recordings, Kondrashin’s first recording of 1959 is a touchstone against which all subsequent recordings must stand. At a little over 65 minutes, the tempos are ideal. As might be expected of Russian recordings from this period, the orchestra is a bit sloppy, the chorus is even worse, and the audio is not terrific. But there is a spark and tension throughout this performance that brings it to life, and it thus is first choice for those who demand the most “idiomatic” recording.
Of the other recordings, Dudarova slogs in at 70+ minutes, Stankovsky is wooden, and Kondrashin’s second recording of 1978 at 57 minutes is breathlessly rushed. Svetlanov offers a very fine performance with much better audio, but he uses an orchestral transcription, omitting the chorus, thus destroying the power of the final movement. The best is Jarvi’s excellent 2002 recording, which delivers all the goods, with a polished orchestra and chorus, and very good audio. Since the 1959 Kondrashin may be difficult to find, and may not appeal to those who prefer more modern recordings, the Jarvi is by far the best modern choice.
Symphony No. 15 in D minor, op. 38 was completed in 1935. It is an interesting comparison to the 5th symphony. By this time, 20 years later, Myaskovsky was a professor at Moscow Conservatory, highly respected, enormously popular in Russia. But this was the time of the Great Terror in Russia, and Stalin’s musical taste did not abide dissonance or experimentation. This period saw Myaskovsky temper his harmonic innovation and produce some of his most beautiful late-romantic music. The 15th symphony marks the beginning of that time. It is a symphony filled with great melodies that intertwine in innovative ways, exuding a rare sense of optimism. Kondrashin’s recording is unsurpassed.
The Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 44 is also a product of this period, completed in 1938. It was dedicated to David Oistrakh, who premiered the work and then recorded it the following year. The audio is rather thin and wiry. For those who prefer a more modern recording with better audio, the recording by Repin is quite good.
The symphonies that Myaskovsky wrote during this period sought a simpler style, lighter in sensibility, and less satisfying musically for Myaskovsky. With his Symphony No. 21 in F sharp minor, op. 51, he found a more satisfying solution. This work was commissioned by Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for the 50th anniversary celebration of the orchestra. It is a relatively short piece in one movement. My preferred recording of this symphony is by Gould and the Chicago Symphony, available only on LP. It is 14 and a half minutes. My second choice would be the recording by Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is available in a boxed set of Ormandy recordings. Other recordings, by Ivanov, , and Svetlanov are less successful. The most readily available, by Svetlanov, is taken at a slow tempo, clocking in at 18 minutes! Nonetheless, any recording of this symphony is worth hearing, because it is so exceptionally good. Myaskovsky was awarded the Stalin Prize for this symphony. It is probably his most popular work around the world (if one can call anything by Myaskovsky popular).
The Cello Concerto in C minor, op. 66, was completed in 1944. The concerto is in two movements and embodies the trademark sense of melancholy that pervades so much of Myaskovsky’s work. It is a deeply pensive work, ideally written for cello. Recordings abound by the best cellists – Rostropovich (four times), Ivashkin, Lloyd-Webber, Maisky, Moerk, Rodin, Rudin, Simon, Tarasova. Many of these performances are just plain too slow. However beautifully performed, the music is melancholy enough. There’s no need to belabor it and drive it into the ground. A good recording of this concerto should clock in around 29 minutes.
My favorite recording, by Natalia Gutman, is unfortunately not available on CD. Of the four recordings by Rostropovich, only one is easily available – with the Philharmonia conducted by Sargent. The recording by Tarasova sounds overly rushed and lacks romance, and the orchestra accompanying her is less that substantial. Ivashkin and Moerk are both over 31 minutes, and Rodin slogs in at a mind-numbing 36:45. That leaves Victor Simon, a name virtually unknown outside Russia – and a CD virtually unattainable from any source outside Russia. He plays the first movement just slightly slower than Rostropovich and Gutman, but the second about the same tempo, so he concludes at 29:21. And he plays with great panache and insight. I like his recording better every time I hear it. I think a few years ago the Penguin Guide gave the nod to Maisky, and of the most easily found recordings, I concur.
Finally, to conclude this introduction, we must hear something from the very last part of his life. In 1948, Myaskovsky was censured by the government along with Shostakovich and his dear friend, Prokofiev, and was dismissed from his post as head of the Moscow Conservatory. He was already in poor health and his condition deteriorated over the next year. In 1949, as he became progressively more ill, he delayed surgery to complete his Symphony No. 27 in C minor, op. 85. It is hard to imagine that anyone who could write music as compelling and utterly engaging as this could be condemned on artistic grounds. But of course, the censure was not about music, it was about envy and animosity.
There are several recordings of the 27th, including Gauk (to whom it was dedicated) in the first recording. It is passionate and well played. But I rather like the quicker opening tempo of Svetlanov, and the outsized swagger of the brass in the last movement, which one reviewer characterized as a hint of satire that exposes the Soviets as too big for their britches. (The one other recording, by Polyansky, is a little too reserved and small-scaled in the end.)
Myaskovsky died in 1950. His music had been banned, his existence erased by the authorities. Some decades later, he was “posthumously rehabilitated,” as they put it. But he has yet to benefit from the kind of full-on revitalization that Shostakovich enjoyed. I think that time is coming.
That concludes this brief sampling of recordings of Myaskovsky’s orchestral music, representing the entire career of a fine composer who has been, to my mind, unfortunately forgotten. I can honestly say that I enjoy listening to his music as much as I do many other composers. His unique voice and gift for blending harmonic tension with melody make for interesting listening – at least for me.
I encourage others to begin exploring the music of this forgotten master.
Silence, A Fable by Edgar Allan Poe
ALCMAN. The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags and caves are silent.
"LISTEN to me," said the Demon as he placed his hand upon my head. "The region of which I speak is a dreary region in , by the borders of the river . And there is no quiet there, nor silence.
"The waters of the river have a saffron and sickly hue; and they flow not onwards to the sea, but palpitate forever and forever beneath the red eye of the sun with a tumultuous and convulsive motion. For many miles on either side of the river's oozy bed is a pale desert of gigantic water-lilies. They sigh one unto the other in that solitude, and stretch towards the heaven their long and ghastly necks, and nod to and fro their everlasting heads. And there is an indistinct murmur which cometh out from among them like the rushing of subterrene water. And they sigh one unto the other.
"But there is a boundary to their realm -- the boundary of the dark, horrible, lofty forest. There, like the waves about the , the low underwood is agitated continually. But there is no wind throughout the heaven. And the tall primeval trees rock eternally hither and thither with a crashing and mighty sound. And from their high summits, one by one, drop everlasting dews. And at the roots strange poisonous flowers lie writhing in perturbed slumber. And overhead, with a rustling and loud noise, the gray clouds rush westwardly forever, until they roll, a cataract, over the fiery wall of the horizon. But there is no wind throughout the heaven. And by the shores of the river there is neither quiet nor silence.
"It was night, and the rain fell; and falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood. And I stood in the morass among the tall and the rain fell upon my head -- and the lilies sighed one unto the other in the solemnity of their desolation.
"And, all at once, the moon arose through the thin ghastly mist, and was crimson in color. And mine eyes fell upon a huge gray rock which stood by the shore of the river, and was lighted by the light of the moon. And the rock was gray, and ghastly, and tall, -- and the rock was gray. Upon its front were characters engraven in the stone; and I walked through the morass of water-lilies, until I came close unto the shore, that I might read the characters upon the stone. But I could not decypher them. And I was going back into the morass, when the moon shone with a fuller red, and I turned and looked again upon the rock, and upon the characters; -- and the characters were DESOLATION.
"And I looked upwards, and there stood a man upon the summit of the rock; and I hid myself among the water-lilies that I might discover the actions of the man. And the man was tall and stately in form, and was wrapped up from his shoulders to his feet in the toga of old . And the outlines of his figure were indistinct -- but his features were the features of a deity; for the mantle of the night, and of the mist, and of the moon, and of the dew, had left uncovered the features of his face. And his brow was lofty with thought, and his eye wild with care; and, in the few furrows upon his cheek I read the fables of sorrow, and weariness, and disgust with mankind, and a longing after solitude.
"And the man sat upon the rock, and leaned his head upon his hand, and looked out upon the desolation. He looked down into the low unquiet shrubbery, and up into the tall primeval trees, and up higher at the rustling heaven, and into the crimson moon. And I lay close within shelter of the lilies, and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; -- but the night waned, and he sat upon the rock.
"And the man turned his attention from the heaven, and looked out upon the dreary river , and upon the yellow ghastly waters, and upon the pale legions of the water-lilies. And the man listened to the sighs of the water-lilies, and to the murmur that came up from among them. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; -- but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.
"Then I went down into the recesses of the morass, and waded afar in among the wilderness of the lilies, and called unto the hippopotami which dwelt among the fens in the recesses of the morass. And the hippopotami heard my call, and came, with the behemoth, unto the foot of the rock, and roared loudly and fearfully beneath the moon. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; -- but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.
"Then I cursed the elements with the curse of tumult; and a frightful tempest gathered in the heaven where, before, there had been no wind. And the heaven became livid with the violence of the tempest -- and the rain beat upon the head of the man -- and the floods of the river came down -- and the river was tormented into foam -- and the water-lilies shrieked within their beds -- and the forest crumbled before the wind -- and the thunder rolled -- and the lightning fell -- and the rock rocked to its foundation. And I lay close within my covert and observed the actions of the man. And the man trembled in the solitude; -- but the night waned and he sat upon the rock.
"Then I grew angry and cursed, with the curse of silence, the river, and the lilies, and the wind, and the forest, and the heaven, and the thunder, and the sighs of the water-lilies. And they became accursed, and were still. And the moon ceased to totter up its pathway to heaven -- and the thunder died away -- and the lightning did not flash -- and the clouds hung motionless -- and the waters sunk to their level and remained -- and the trees ceased to rock -- and the water-lilies sighed no more -- and the murmur was heard no longer from among them, nor any shadow of sound throughout the vast illimitable desert. And I looked upon the characters of the rock, and they were changed; -- and the characters were SILENCE.
"And mine eyes fell upon the countenance of the man, and his countenance was wan with terror. And, hurriedly, he raised his head from his hand, and stood forth upon the rock and listened. But there was no voice throughout the vast illimitable desert, and the characters upon the rock were SILENCE. And the man shuddered, and turned his face away, and fled afar off, in haste, so that I beheld him no more."
Now there are fine tales in the volumes of the Magi -- in the iron-bound, melancholy volumes of the Magi. Therein, I say, are glorious histories of the Heaven, and of the Earth, and of the mighty sea -- and of the Genii that over-ruled the sea, and the earth, and the lofty heaven. There was much lore too in the sayings which were said by the Sybils; and holy, holy things were heard of old by the dim leaves that trembled around Dodona -- but, as Allah liveth, that fable which the Demon told me as he sat by my side in the shadow of the tomb, I hold to be the most wonderful of all! And as the Demon made an end of his story, he fell back within the cavity of the tomb and laughed. And I could not laugh with the Demon, and he cursed me because I could not laugh. And the lynx which dwelleth forever in the tomb, came out therefrom, and lay down at the feet of the Demon, and looked at him steadily in the face.
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche