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8.223297 - MYASKOVSKY, N.Y.: Symphony No. 8 (Slovak Radio Symphony, Stankovsky)

Nikolai Yakovlevlch Miaskovsky (1881–1950)
Symphony No. 8 in A major, Op. 26


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

Miaskovsky was born in 1881 in Novogeorgiyevsk, near Warsaw, the son of an engineer officer. His early education followed family tradition at military schools at Nizhny-Novgorod and in 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 opera 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 determined that his career should be 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 and later with Krizhanovsky in St. Petersburg as a preparation for entry in 1906 to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where his teachers included Lyadov 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 Lyadov and his teaching and in their playing of four-hand piano arrangements of a varied repertoire of music. The composers maintained their relationship 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 Pioneers and was wounded while employed on the naval fortifications at Reval (Talinn), after which he held a staff appointment in Moscow. In 1917 he joined the Red Army and after demobilisation in 1921 joined the teaching staff of the Moscow Conservatory, remaining a 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 for 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 and was followed by the Sixth Symphony, Opus 23, written between 1921 and 1923, a work for which he later offered some apology. The Eighth Symphony was written in 1924 and 1925 and seeks to capture a more objective mood, as he himself claimed. It takes as its initial inspiration the 17th century Cossack leader Stenka Razin, who led a peasant revolt in the years 1670 and 1671, to meet final defeat and execution.

The symphony is scored for a large orchestra and opens with a slow introduction, a theme of clear Russian provenance, played by the woodwind, with sinister additions from the strings, moving forward to an agitated Allegro, with further Russian thematic material. This is followed by a second subject of tragic intensity, material that is worked out symphonically. The movement ends with the return of the poignant opening of the work, its optimistic F-sharp major subtly shading into a final minor mode. The second movement opens with some stridency and a lopsided folk-dance melody in 7/4 time. Some of the more immediate contrapuntal possibilities of the theme are explored before the introduction of a gentler mood. The first thematic material re-appears to bring the movement to a forceful D major conclusion. The cor anglais announces the Bashkir folk-theme of the B minor slow movement, accompanied by the harp and divided lower strings, suggesting, as the music moves on, the musical world of some melancholy Russian Delius of the steppes. The mood is shattered by the decisive opening of the Finale, an initial motive offered by the six French horns of the orchestra in unison. In the mood of some Russian festival the orchestra announces a melody that at once declares its provenance, given a chromatic treatment typical of the composer. A second theme, again with a characteristic minor twist in the tail, introduces a more lyrical episode, a reminiscence of the first and third movements. The first theme returns, to usher in a theme of solemn peasant devotion, material that is colourfully developed. The second melody returns and the opening theme provides the substance of a forceful conclusion of ambiguous tonality.

Keith Anderson

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