Revisit: Myaskovsky Symphony no. 3 in Am, op. 15

performed by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov

playlist of the entire work here

Yesterday we talked a bit about Myaskovsky’s early life and his second symphony. Today we’ll talk a bit more about his life and his third symphony, which is also a revisit from back a few years ago when I thought it was a good idea to write about these nearly-impenetrable works. For me.

This work, as Wikipedia states, was written in 1914 and dedicated to Boris Asafyev. It also states that work on the piece was “terminated” in April 1914, not “completed” or something else, so I wonder if that has any significance. It was also the last work of the composer before the First World War. Wiki says that “the symphony represents a compromise between the music of the Russian Romantics and the traumatic processing of the experiences of the time.”

The world was an interesting place to be in the beginning of the 20th century, Russia especially, so the symphonies that are coming out of this, like Lyapunov’s last week, written in 1917, have a distinctly heavier, sullen, dark, ominous feel. Add to that list whatever other cliche adjectives you wish, but this is not feel-good music. The central movement/section of the second yesterday had some really nice passages, tendrils of sunshine and tenderness, but overwhelmingly overshadowed by everything else.

Today’s work is more along those lines. First symphony in Cm, second in C#m, third in Am, but it begins in Eb major.

I really do not want to get into a play-by-play here of the work. Schissel’s discussion does that. This piece feels more to me like early Scriabin, and overall more polished than the second, with touching, delicate moments, a more natural progression of ideas, and overall more interesting, to me. Interestingly, Schissel mentions the three-subject sonata form here, giving this already-beefy movement that much more heft.

The end of the first movement is not happy or bright, but warm, cozy, positive, and quite delicate, with long solo lines from many solo instruments, and at this point, everything seems just fine.

The second movement, in great contrast, begins crunchily and brassily, agitated, marked deciso. What we have here is a rondo, and I’ll quote Schissel again. He says:

Fast development of it leads to the rondo’s main theme, which shares the one problem besetting most of the fast portions of this symphony- a tune once heard is repeated immediately and often without change. It’s a fine theme, though, and malleable.

This seems to be one of the… characteristic factors of the works we’ve talked about so far: very sticky themes, content that stays with us and doesn’t seem to go much place. It, to me, is a kind of minimalism, a sort of languidness, a (not total) lack of the kind of motivic development that characterizes and gives movement to so many other symphonies. In any case, there seems to be a lot more breathing room in the third, or at least more place to go; even though the rondo seems not to be nearly as obvious, there’s a lot of nice stuff going on.

I can see myself giving this one more thought, or coming back to it later. The problem so far seems to be that… it just doesn’t jump out at me. If I were to do something entirely meaningless and compare it to, say, Mahler, who also wrote big symphonies, I’d say that Mahler’s works always felt like they’re going somewhere, that there was a surprise, or tension, or development, or movement at every turn. But it’s likely I didn’t feel that way about them at the beginning, and I’ll say I enjoy this work at face value more easily and more quickly, and just more than I did the second. It’s one of his better-known symphonies (relatively speaking), but this is still just a revisit. The real feature comes tomorrow.

Listening to this final movement of the third, I feel like there’s something here I could get into, far more than the second. It has tinges, especially toward the end, of a funeral march, like it should be marked morendo in the score, as it does die off, extremely effectively, to nothing. There’s depth and emotion and spirit to this music; it just maybe takes a little digging to begin to feel. Or it could just be me.

If you’re interested, there’s a thread on TalkClassical about Myaskovsky’s symphonies, with the sixth as the jumping off point, and that’s where we’re headed tomorrow.

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