About this Recording
8.223302 - MYASKOVSKY, N.Y.: Silence Op. 9 / Symphony No. 12 (Slovak Radio Symphony, Stankovsky)

Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovsky (1881–1950)
Symphony No.12 in G Minor (Kolkhoz • Collective Farm), Op. 35 • Silence, Op. 9 (Symphonic poem after Poe)


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 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 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 that represents his own reactions to the revolutionary period in Russia and was later described by the composer as a reflection of a weak-willed, neurotic and sacrificial attitude. The Twelfth Symphony was completed in 1932 and was designed to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the October Revolution. The work is allegedly based on The Proletarians by the popular Soviet poet Viktor Gusev. Miaskovsky originally provided a programme for the symphony, in which he attempted to illustrate the changes in a Russian village, reflecting life before the Communist reforms, during the changes and after. The symphony has been generally known as the “Collective Farm” Symphony. The composer later expressed reservations about the success of the last of the three movements.

The symphony opens with a theme of clear Russian outline, played by a solo clarinet, followed by a cor anglais, accompanied by muted violins. In a passage marked Adagio severo, the bassoon, with solo cello and double bass, introduces another theme, which provides material for what follows, before the appearance of a more cheerful melody, marked Allegro giocoso, and at first entrusted to the flute. The thematic material returns in reverse order, concluding in the mood of the opening, the cor anglais now followed by the clarinet.

The second movement, marked Presto agitato, is announced by the trumpets, followed by the strings, as the key shifts. A theme of fugal possibilities is introduced by the bassoon and double bass. The music grows quieter, introducing a brief passage marked lnvocando, followed by a cor anglais motif that forms the basis, with the original material, of accompaniment to a folk-type melody, played by the flute. The music grows in intensity, leading to another passage marked lnvocando, and an Allegro agitato in the mood of the opening, broken off again before the recapitulation proper. The last movement is not one of unalloyed triumph, except in its final bars. New material of thoroughly Russian contour is introduced, with reminiscences of the earlier movements, memories of the unreformed village and the years of struggle. The year 1932, after all, marked the end of the first Five-Year Plan, during which collectivisation had ultimately had to undergo some modification, after much hardship for the peasants involved in the ambitious agrarian reform.

Miaskovsky wrote his First Symphony in 1908, while still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The following year he wrote the symphonic poem Silence, based on the poem The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. First performed in 1911 in Moscow, the work was followed by a Second Symphonic Poem, this time based on Shelley’s Alastor. In Poe’s famous work the poet sits in his study on a bleak December night, remembering his lost beloved Lenore. There is a tapping at the window, and a black raven steps in, with its one word, an ominous message, “Nevermore”, the only answer to the despairing cries of the poet. Nevermore shall he see Lenore and nevermore shall the shadow of the bird of ill-omen cease to fall on him, depriving him of all hope.

Keith Anderson

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