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8.555376 - MYASKOVSKY: Symphonies Nos. 24 and 25
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Nikolay Yakovlevich Myaskovsky (1881-1950)
Symphony No. 24 in F minor, Op. 63
Symphony No. 25 in D flat major, Op. 69

Remarkably many Russian composers of older times began their professional lives as military men. In some cases this has left us with anecdotes, like the one about Rimsky-Korsakov falling into the Baltic from the clipper Almaz. In other cases the accounts are serious, even tragic. As a lieutenant in the sappers, Nikolay Myaskovsky suffered severe shell-shock after having been badly wounded in some of the fiercest fighting on the Eastern front during the First World War. He was sent home, but the war left its traces for the remainder of his life.

Myaskovsky was in fact born in 1881 in a fortress, Novo-Georgiyevsk near Warsaw, where his father served as an officer. He joined a cadet school, and he was already a lieutenant when he began his studies at the St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 25. His main teachers were Anatoly Liadov and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, which guaranteed him the most solid composition technique imaginable. One of his fellow students was Prokofiev, ten years his junior, and their compositional débuts took place at the same concert; they were very good friends, and Myaskovsky even invented numerous titles for Prokofiev’s works. Myaskovsky graduated in 1911, but in the middle of a promising musical career he had to join the army again at the outbreak of the First World War. After recovering from the aforementioned shell-shock he soon moved to Moscow where he was to spend the rest of his life. In 1921 he became a Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory.

Myaskovsky’s musical style was never ultra-modern, but may rather be placed somewhere between the great Russian Romantics and that of his fellow student Prokofiev. It is therefore particularly absurd that he was among the composers who were severely criticized by the Soviet Communist Party in 1948. The official decree used many vague terms, but it was obvious that the Central Committee wanted composers to write music that Donbass coal-miners and Uzbek farmers could easily understand, not only the Moscow, Leningrad or Kiev concert audiences. This unjust criticism probably precipitated Myaskovsky’s death in 1950, denying him the joy of reaching the round number of thirty symphonies - but with 27 he still stands out as one of the truly great symphonists of the last century, and he was also very prolific in most other musical areas, opera and ballet being the main exceptions.

Like most Soviet composers, Myaskovsky was evacuated during the Second World War, and thus it was in the Kirgiz capital Frunze that the news of the death of Vladimir Derzhanovsky reached him in September 1942. This was a severe blow, because he had not only been working closely together with this eminent musicologist and publisher of the periodical Muzyka for many years (for example contributing articles to the journal), but they had also become close friends, and it was thus natural for him to dedicate his Symphony No. 24 in F minor, Op. 63, to Derzhanovsky’s memory. In December he was allowed to return to Moscow, and in March 1943 he began sketching the symphony. After a few days the news of Rachmaninov’s death reached him, which also may have influenced his mood during the following months. On 24th August he noted in his diary that he had completed the orchestration, and the score was handed over to Yevgeny Mravinsky, who conducted the première in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 8th December.

Those who because of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the symphony expect it to be some kind of dirge will be disappointed: it is, in fact, a strongly dramatic work. The first and last of the three movements, both of them written in sonata form, even begin with fanfares played by the brass. The Russian musicologist Zoya Gulinskaya has called the first of them, Allegro deciso, an “heroic ballad”, and already its first bar displays a defiant mood which is softened but still present in the broad secondary theme. Only after the development, towards the end of the movement, does the atmosphere soften and show some signs of resignation. As if the drama had already been exhausted in the first movement, the slow Molto sostenuto appears comparatively restrained; its feeling of grief is created by presenting its tragic theme in varying orchestrations and dynamics, and in the last bars an unexpected turn into the major mode brings a sudden shaft of light. The finale, Allegro appassionato, is based on a modification of the secondary theme from the first movement, from which a number of climaxes are built up, but their intensity gradually diminishes, until the symphony finally ends in the calm of a serene F major.

The Symphony No. 25 in D flat major, Op. 69, is Myaskovsky’s first large post-war orchestral work. He did not begin composing it until a year after the armistice, the reason being that his health had deteriorated severely and that he had in the meantime spent some time at a health resort. The initial sketches were written in the summer of 1946, and on 6th March, 1947, Alexander Gauk conducted the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR at the first performance, which took place with considerable success in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The dedicatee of the work was Levon Atovmian, a fellow composer of Armenian descent, who was later to have disastrous problems with the régime and was saved only by Shostakovich’s intervention. In 1949 Myaskovsky undertook minor revisions to the work.

In 1946 the general climate for Soviet composers was comparatively good. During the war they had been allowed a fair amount of artistic liberty, and the Party had not yet fully resumed its pre-war efforts to control the arts. It is, however, not very likely that Myaskovsky would have composed the symphony differently after the year of conflict 1948: as it is, it does not differ much from the standards accepted by the leadership. 

The greatest difference, as compared with most other symphonies, is that this work begins with a slow movement, Adagio. Instead of the sonata form traditionally used for the first movement of a symphony, this work begins with a set of variations on a typically Russian theme, which Soviet commentators regarded as an epic portrayal of the Fatherland. The second movement, Moderato, is also rather lyrical, though not quite as slow, and its comparatively light-hearted spirit is characterized by the sudden appearance of a waltz theme. All the drama of this three-movement work is concentrated in the finale, Allegro impetuoso, which introduces a sudden and vigorous forward drive towards the impressive conclusion, crowned by the reappearance of the theme from the first movement.

Per Skans

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