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8.223178 - MYASKOVSKY: Piano Sonatas Nos. 6 - 9
Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881–1950)
Who was Nikolai Miaskovsky? This may seem a strange question to ask about a composer who with Prokofiev and Shostakovich forms the great triumvirate of Soviet symphonists and who was himself one of the most prolific symphonists of the twentieth century. But given the circumstances of his life and times, the question is not as strange as it first may seem. Reticent by nature, Miaskovsky shied away from public attention, and precious little is known of his private life and personality. His own Autobiographical Notes of My Creative Development, published in Sovetskaya Muzyka No. 6 serve as much to confound as to clarify. What artist in 1936 Stalinist Russia could be expected to write candidly of his artistic convictions? A mass of contradictions clouds the public record as well. Musically Miaskovsky was a product of the last years of tsarist Russia who by historical events became a Soviet artist—one alternately praised and damned depending on which way the political winds blew.
Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovsky was born on 20 April 1881 in Novogeorgiyevsk near Warsaw. His father, an army engineer and later general, was determined that his son should pursue a similar career, although the young Nikolai detested the military and showed an intense love of music from an early age. After their mother’s death in 1890, the five Miaskovsky children were brought up by an aunt who had sung in the chorus of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. She encouraged Nikolai in music, but her religious mania may have contributed to his pessimism and withdrawal. At the age of twelve he was enrolled in the first of a series of military schools, but three years later he vowed to make music his life’s work. The decisive event was a concert in St. Petersburg at which Nikisch conducted the Pathétique Symphony. Thereafter a copy of Tchaikovsky’s score became Miaskovsky’s inseparable companion and a powerful influence on his developing musical consciousness.
Though music was of necessity a sideline during the period of his military education, Miaskovsky pursued it to the extent possible, obtaining some private instruction first from Glière in Moscow and then from Ivan Kryzhanovsky in St. Petersburg. The latter is known for his progressive tendencies; much later he came under attack for “infecting” Miaskovsky with “modernism” and “formalism”. In the spring of 1907, as soon as Miaskovsky was free to resign from the military, he entered St. Petersburg Conservatory as a full-time student of Liadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. He joined a circle of progressive musicians, who presented works of young composers at their “Evenings of New Music”. Between 1911 and 1914 he worked as a critic for the weekly Muzyka and ardently championed the music of his friend Prokofiev. During this period Miaskovsky composed complex, somewhat modernistic scores that have been described as troubled landscapes overcast with a pall of oppressive gloom. Russian critics of the time likened him to Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky as a traveller in the realm of mental darkness.
According to the Autobiographical Notes the First World War wrought a fundamental change in the composer’s outlook. Miaskovsky wrote that his wartime experiences clarified (“brightened” in some translations) his musical thinking, and as late as the 1960s the war was credited in the Soviet publications for taking him out of “the musty atmosphere of decadent salons” and placing him among “simple, spiritually healthy people”.
Nevertheless, much of his music throughout his life expresses a deep sadness, and the often cited move toward simplification after 1917 simply is not borne out by the scores themselves. In 1923 Miaskovsky became a founding member of the Association for Contemporary Music, a Moscow-based counterpart to the International Society for Contemporary Music founded in London the previous year. During the Stalin era the ACM was blamed for promoting “decadent-modernist formalism” and for hindering the development of socialist realism. In 1928 Miaskovsky composed one of his most radical works, the nearly atonal, psychologically anguished Tenth Symphony. Premièred by the conductorless orchestra Persimfans, it failed to make the desired impression and could well be the true reason for Miaskovsky’s adoption immediately thereafter of a simpler, more accessible idiom. In the early 1930s he abandoned the ACM, and though he had been non-political until then, he began to profess a Marxist social and political awareness.
The communist government had tried all along to turn writers, film-makers and theatrical artists into state propagandists, but the more eminent composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Miaskovsky retained relative artistic freedom until 1936, when Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk scandalised Stalin and ushered in an era of despotic oppression in music. The Second World War brought a wave of patriotism, and socialist realism receded somewhat into the background while composers began to exercise a modicum of individuality. In doing so they created some of the best Soviet works of the period. But the end of the war brought the beginning of the Cold War, and despotism resurged stronger than before. Though Miaskovsky was the most respected teacher of composition in the Soviet Union (he held his position from 1921 until the end of his life) and was known as “the musical conscience of Moscow”, he was not immune from criticism. Though an honorary Doctor of Arts, People’s Artist (1946) and recipient of two Stalin Prizes, he was one of seven composers named in the infamous Decree on Music issued in 1948 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, denounced with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Shebalin, Popov and Muradeli for “formalist perversions” and “anti-democratic tendencies … alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes”.
Already gravely ill and predisposed to reticence, Miaskovsky did not make a public confession of his “errors” but responded with his Twenty-Seventh Symphony, a work of autumnal beauty that makes few concessions to socialist realism. Thoroughly embittered, he died in Moscow on 8 August 1950. Not long afterwards the symphony was premièred and declared the correct model for Soviet symphonism.
Ironically the Ninth String Quartet (1943)—one of the works that had involved Miaskovsky in the 1948 purge along with his general “pessimism”—later won recognition as a masterwork of Soviet chamber music. By the 1960s the Sixteenth Symphony, formerly hailed as “the Soviet Eroica”, came under a shadow for its concern with an event of transient interest—the crash of the airliner Maxim Gorky. The Twelfth, “Collective Farm”, symphony met with similar criticism. The Sixth symphony, which was the first of Miaskovsky’s works to show the effects of political ideology, retained praise for its musical merits but found disfavour for its fundamental misunderstanding of the revolution: its fault was to reflect the psychological attitudes of the Russian intelligentsia and not the experiences of the heroic masses. In crowning irony the acutely subjective, profoundly pessimistic Third Symphony of 1914, which Miaskovsky himself had abjured in 1936, found new praise for depicting the psychological confusion and spiritual depression of Russian intellectuals before the revolution.
Who then was Nikolai Miaskovsky? All that can be said with certainty is that he was a musician of unshakable integrity, an introvert who attempted all his life to reconcile his inner being with his outer circumstances, and a conscientiously self-critical composer who strove for an “objectivity” which he defined as the transmutation of personal experience into universal communication.
In Russian music Miaskovsky represents stability more than innovation, despite his progressive associations up through the 1920s. His own modernism is more an evolution from the past than a break with it. When he wrote in 1936 that “the tireless quest for ‘the last word’ in musical technique and invention did not constitute an end in itself for me”, he may have been motivated less by political expediency than by the sincere belief that music’s primary purpose is to communicate. His work is generally perceived as moving from greater complexity to relative simplicity—from extreme chromaticism to diatonicism, from overwrought subjectivity to calm objectivity, from polyphony to homophony. Nevertheless such an uncomplicated line of progression simply does not exist. The differences between early and late works are not so marked as one would be led to think. It has even been suggested that the earlier complexities appear contrived and that from the very beginning Miaskovsky would have found a simpler mode of expression more natural. Moreover one must distinguish between the shallowness in some of the music of the 1930s and 1940s that is most likely a response to external pressure and the clarity in other works of the same period that is a sign of artistic maturation.
Miaskovsky’s music proceeds from the Russian romantic tradition. Besides the Pathétique, which resonated profoundly with Miaskovsky’s own melancholy nature, Scriabin’s heady, radical romanticism left a strong imprint, especially on the music written before 1936. In the early works Wagner’s harmony was as influential as Scriabin’s. Victor Belayaev noted Glazunov’s presence in Miaskovsky’s symphonic structures and pointed out that he shared Mussorgsky’s desire to relate music to human experience.
Miaskovsky discovered while still young that the symphony was the form in which he could best express himself. His work has been called a lifelong meditation on sonata form, perhaps arising from the need to create unity out of diversity and resolution out of conflict. What can be said about his twenty-seven symphonies applies in large part to his thirteen string quartets and nine published piano sonatas as well.
The piano sonatas reflect every phase of his career, and like the other sonata-form works they show a preponderance of minor keys. It is interesting to note, moreover, that Miaskovsky composed at the keyboard, and musical analysis reveals the pianistic origins of his orchestral textures and harmonic language. Conversely the piano sonatas and string quartets tend toward symphonic thought and exhibit the same sort of dynamic movement, logical development and inner tensions as the symphonies. The sonatas neither display extremes of virtuosity, brilliance or striving after effect, nor on the whole are they easy to play. The first four in particular demand a high level of musical sophistication from the listener.
The nine sonatas, not published in the order of composition, fall into four groups. The powerful, virtuosic first (1907–10) belongs to the late romantic world of Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Medtner and dates from Miaskovsky’s student years at St. Petersburg Conservatory. From the same period are Nos. 5 and 6, though they were rewritten in 1944 and reflect the simpler clarity of Miaskovsky’s maturity. Nos. 2, 3 and 4, also revised later, convey the excitement of the radical years and present a strange world filled with conflict. Their dissonance, often arising from intervals of the fourth and augmented fourth, their wildly fluctuating tempos and moods and their frequently neurotic demeanour represent a highly developed assimilation of Scriabin’s influence and that of the symbolist poets. The last three sonatas (1949) were designed as didactic pieces.
Among the finest of Miaskovsky’s compositions is the pessimistic yet powerful Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor, composed in 1912 and revised in 1948. Like the Third and Fourth Sonatas it bares the composer’s inner turbulence, and its structure displays impressive formal control. The slow but forceful introduction’s rich chords establish a harmonic ambience closely related to Scriabin’s sound-world. An air of anxiety enters with the first subject, appropriately marked “Allegro affanato”, and finds relief in the contrasting beauty of the second theme. Completing the exposition is a third idea, the “Dies lrae”, which it must be remembered held considerable fascination for another Russian composer-pianist, Sergei Rachmaninov. That theme, along with fragments of the first and second subjects, plays an important role in the development section, where Miaskovsky shows an impressive mastery of contrapuntal and variation techniques. After a straightforward reprise there follows an insistent, ever-accelerating fugue, based on the first subject and the “Dies lrae”. The marking “Allegro disperato” eloquently describes the concluding psychological state.
Turbulence likewise colours the beginning of Sonata No. 3 in C minor, composed in 1920 and revised in 1939. Another single-movement structure, it displays frequent metrical and dynamic change, and instability is the word that comes to mind in connection with this restless, enigmatic music, fraught with what may well be intentional ambiguity. There are three main ideas: a brief opening statement of eight bars, a melancholy first subject proper in the tonic key, and a second subject-group redolent of Scriabinesque languidity. In contrast to the otherwise similarly structured Second Sonata, the Third develops each of its ideas consecutively before the appearance of a literal recapitulation and a vigorous coda. Miaskovsky’s 1939 revisions resulted in greater textural clarity, which may in part account for the sonata’s widespread popularity.
Of the nine sonatas, No. 5 in B major underwent the most complex evolution. The first sketches date from 1907–08 and are contemporary with the Sonata No. 1 in D minor, but the four-movement fifth sonata was completed in 1917, and its third and final version did not appear until 1944. The already mentioned impression of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony on the young Miaskovsky is preserved in the outer parts of the slow movement and in the Trio of an otherwise brilliant Scherzo. The prevailing pastoral character, however, links the Fifth Sonata to its companion work, the Sixth Sonata, deviating in the ambitious, virtuosic sonata-form finale, where the music assumes symphonic weight.
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