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8.223499 - MYASKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 9

Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovsky (1881–1950)
Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op. 18 • Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 28


Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovsky has long enjoyed an ambiguous reputation, much honoured at home in Russia, and respected abroad, if relatively little known, except for the fact that he wrote 27 symphonies. Born in 1881, he belonged to the generation of Russian musicians that had its musical training at the turn of the century, under the successors of the Rubinsteins and the Five, and its active career under the new regime established after 1917.

Miaskovsky was born in 1881 in Novogeorgiyevsk, near Warsaw, the son of an engineer officer. His early education followed family tradition in military schools at Nizhny-Novgorod and St. Petersburg, and finally at the Academy of Military Engineering, where he completed his studies in 1902. From childhood he had shown an interest in music, fostered at first by his mother and after her death in 1890 by his aunt, his father’s sister, who had been a singer at the Marlinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. He played the violin in the military cadets’ orchestra and was decisively influenced by a concert conducted by Nikisch in 1896, after which he was determined to make his career in music. In 1902, as a young officer in Moscow, he took private lessons, not from Taneyev, as Rimsky-Korsakov had recommended, but from Glière. He continued these studies with Krizhanovsky in St. Petersburg, as a preparation for entry in 1906 to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where his teachers included Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1908 he wrote his First Symphony, which won him a share in the Glazunov scholarship.

Miaskovsky’s fellow students at the Conservatory included the young Prokofiev, ten years his junior, with whom he established a lasting friendship, united at first in their critical attitude to Liadov and his teaching and in their playing of four-hand arrangements of a varied repertoire of music. They remained friends until Miaskovsky’s death in 1950, with the older man an indulgent mentor, offering advice tempered with admiration, both acceptable in equal measure to Prokofiev.

After graduation in 1911 Miaskovsky supported himself by teaching music in one of the less important music schools in St. Petersburg and during the war he served on the Austrian front as an officer in the Sappers. While employed on the naval fortifications at Reval (Talinn), he was wounded, and was then given a staff posting in Moscow. In 1917 he joined the Red Army and after demobilisation in 1921 was appointed to the teaching staff of the Moscow Conservatory, remaining professor of composition there until his death. In this capacity he exercised an important influence over a younger generation of composers, including Khachaturian and Kabalevsky. In character he remained retiring and diffident, perhaps affected by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war, and rejected attempts by Prokofiev to induce him to travel to Western Europe. As his career progressed he increasingly attempted to fulfil what he saw as the requirements of the Soviet establishment, abandoning in the 1930s the Association of Contemporary Music, of which he had been a founder-member, to adopt a style that was often of more immediate appeal to the people and certainly more congenial to political theorists of the time. Nevertheless in 1948 his name was linked with those of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and his own former pupils Kabalevsky and Shebalin, in Zhdanov’s condemnation of formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies. Ten years later he was posthumously rehabilitated.

In his autobiography Miaskovsky declared that his first symphonies, written between 1908 and 1918, were pessimistic in tendency. The Fifth Symphony, written in 1918, marked a more positive attitude, a reaction to the Fourth. As he himself later explained, the whole symphony was a relaxation for him, a rest from the Fourth Symphony. It was well received at home and abroad, greeted as essentially Russian in inspiration and in much of its melodic material, immediately comprehensible, in spite of the technical intricacies of its construction. The work was dedicated to the critic and musicologist Viktor Mikhaylovich Belyayev, formerly a fellow-student of the composer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

The Fifth Symphony opens with a sonata-allegro form movement, its first theme, a melody with a touch of Sheherazade in its contours, is introduced by the clarinet, leading to a folk-like second subject, growing in importance. There is a central development of this material, including a fugal section marked Allegro tenebroso econ anima and relatively astringent in style, allowing development of the second subject, which re-appears first in the final recapitulation, followed by the first subject, an inversion of the usual form. The slow movement opens with an eerie introduction, played by muted strings, before the gentle melancholy of the principal theme, which with its later re-appearance frames secondary material of increasingly fierce agitation. The Scherzo that follows, marked Allegro burlando, is introduced by cellos and double basses, closely followed by the bassoons, with a very Russian melody entrusted to the clarinet, and more cheerful material of similar national provenance introduced by the oboe. The symphony ends with music of some brilliance, testimony yet again to Miaskovsky’s technical mastery of form and instrumentation. The coda culminates in a restatement of the second subject of the first movement.

In his Eighth Symphony, completed in 1925, Miaskovsky treated the subject of the seventeenth century peasant hero Stenka Razin. The Ninth Symphony represents a relaxation, much as the Fifth had done after the symphonies that had preceded it. It was dedicated to the conductor Nikolay Malko, who had directed the first performance of Miaskovsky’s Fifth Symphony in Moscow in 1920. The first movement of the Ninth Symphony, strongly romantic in mood, avoids traditional first movement form, using instead an elaborated ternary structure, pervaded by melancholy. For the second movement Scherzo Miaskovsky returns to sonata-allegro form in music of colourful instrumentation that includes harp and bells. The slow movement allows the clarinet a very Russian folk-song theme, accompanied by harp, second violins and violas. A secondary theme is introduced by the alto flute, accompanied only by cellos and double basses and followed by the principal theme, now played by the oboe. Something of the melancholy of the slow movement is dispelled in the final rondo, related in its material to the first two movements of the symphony. The principal theme is at first given to the violas, but there is room for other thematic material in a more ominous mood, as the movement unwinds. The symphony is less lyrical than the Fifth, but is nevertheless in marked contrast to the “Stenka Razin” Symphony that preceded it or the“Pushkin Bronze Horseman” Symphony that followed.

Keith Anderson

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