Myaskovsky Symphony no. 6 in E flat minor, op. 23

performed by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov (as with the others) (for a version with the choral part, see below)

This is a tough nut to crack. Size does matter, but anyone who’s listened to something like Mahler 3 or Bruckner 4 (or others) and felt like the time just flew by also knows that when you love a piece, and know it, then that isn’t a challenge. But getting there might be. The first few raw listens can be a chore, to be honest, and I feel like there’s something especially challenging or dense or impenetrable about these works, similar to the way I felt breaking into Shostakovich, but that didn’t take long. There’s something challenging about this, but also deep, and I feel like maybe I’m just starting to learn Myaskovsky’s language enough to start to get what he’s saying.

Wikipedia’s article on this piece begins:

The Symphony No. 6 in E flat minor, Op. 23 by Nikolai Myaskovsky was composed between 1921 and 1923. It is the largest and most ambitious of his 27 symphonies, planned on a Mahlerian scale, and uses a chorus in the finale. It has been described as ‘probably the most significant Russian symphony between Tchaikovsky‘s Pathétique and the Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich.

As in last week’s Lyapunov work, Myaskovsky’s symphony here was at least influenced if not inspired by the political state of affairs of the time. He had lost multiple friends and family members to death, among them his father, who was murdered.

While at the time, Soviet musicologists or interpreters twisted the work as a piece of Soviet propaganda, portraying the struggles of the young Soviet state, but how could it not be a result of the more personal tragedies and situations that the composer had just recently experienced? Again, Wikipedia:

The harsh, emphatically descending chordal theme with which the symphony begins apparently arose in the composer’s mind at a mass rally in which he heard the Soviet Procurator Nikolai Krylenko conclude his speech with the call ‘Death, death to the enemies of the revolution!’

One can see how that might have touched on a sensitive issue with Myaskovsky, or how it would seem cold, or even disgusting in such a situation. But then again, one can be certain that Myaskovsky was obviously not the only person experiencing such tragedy. So it might be portraying the composer as a bit egotistic or self-centered to say that such a large work, arguably one of his ‘greatest’, was only personal; it was likely more widespread, more universal than that, which is likely one of the reasons the piece is so enduring. Maybe?

The premiere was conducted by Nikolai Golovanov on May 4, 1924 in Moscow, and was “a notable success.” There’s a lot of talk of ‘revolutionary’ stuff in the Wikipedia article, and I want to say that I read somewhere that it was referred to as the ‘revolutionary’ symphony, but maybe not.

If you’ve had trouble getting into the works from this week or last week, you’ll probably have the same issue here. I really can’t put my finger on what it is, to be honest, but in reading over Eric Schissel’s comments on the symphony, I didn’t feel as bad. He says of the work:

…my problem with this symphony is that its themes do not, until the finale, attach themselves to my memory or strike me as particularly original, compared to those in other works by the composer. Further, its weight and length have put off repeated listenings…

So it’s not just me.

The first movement is sufficiently turbulent and engaging, but Schissel nailed it when he said they don’t ‘attach themselves to his memory,’ because there’s a bit of a sense of “where am I” with this work for the first many listenings. I will say that some of those themes do eventually kind of become infectious later on, but they’re always a bit… clunky, almost clumsy. As negative as that may seem, I don’t mean it as a criticism. It’s a big symphony, and a big first movement, at 20-plus minutes, depending on the recording, I guess. I really can’t think of any other word to describe it more succinctly than ‘Soviet.’ It is by far the most serious in nature of the four movements of the work, and establishes material that will be used later.

The second movement is far easier to digest, a little more straightforward, I think, and less than half as long. It’s the scherzo of the work, and there seems to be a lot more to charm us here, with some really celestial, heavenly sweet passages including flute and oboe solos. Celesta does (I think…?) make an appearance in one of the most untroubled, peaceful passages of the entire work. The flute solo sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov’s spirit dropping in for a visit. It sounds familiar and Russian, colloquial, and beautiful, before the busy but not necessarily tragic or turbulent scherzo returns, but it does have its more menacing passages. The contrast between these sections is great.

The third movement is also quite large, a slow movement. Clarinet leads most of the first part of this movement, backed by strings, with flute here and there, and this is when some of that material from the first movement returns. There’s the return of that instrument that I’m pretty sure is celesta, in almost exactly the same manner; it’s kind of this haunting ethereal presence that crosses movements, bringing some unity to the work. If you have the patience for it, and the very wide, expansive open spaces here, it’s a nice movement, and overall quite restful.

The final movement is what blew me away with this work, as Schissel mentions above, making a real impression. We begin with harp and triumphant brass, with woodwinds whirling about in an almost incongruous celebratory spirit. It’s a relief, and the music is truly wonderful but one can’t help but feel that it’s some kind of a trick. After all that’s come so far, I’m suspicious of it.

Wikipedia talks about themes from French revolutionary songs, and I think you’ll know them when you hear them. I kind of found myself asking… “did we win?” upon hearing this bright, cheery, almost jocose music, but one still can’t help but doubt it. It gets heavier at turns and feels more in place, especially when a more suitable tune, the Dies Irae, makes an appearance. I’m a sucker for Dies Irae themes, I have to admit. It begins so wonderfully with pizzicato on low strings, but disappears in favor of other content for a while. This movement, with its contrast of outstandingly moving, powerful, memorable themes, is the one that really blew me away. But I must say at this point, that for 98% of the listenings I gave to it, it was the Svetlanov version above without the chorus. I knew from the get-go that it had been omitted, but was too lazy to go find another version with the chorus included. It is below:

That’s the Ural Philharmonic under Dmitry Liss. I’ve seen Maestro Liss perform here before (with our NSO and Boris Berezovsky). Skipping around through this recording, the tempi in lots of places seem more deliberate than Svetlanov’s reading, but that isn’t the point. I wanted to hear what was going on with the chorus.

There is no choral symphony I’ve heard where the entire part can be omitted. It was taken out of Scriabin’s Prometheus in a performance a few years ago, as I imagine it might occasionally (and unfortunately) be. But I cannot imagine removing the chorus from either of Mahler’s symphonies, Beethoven 9, any of it. Granted, they have solo vocal parts that go along with them, but it would be heresy to cut that ensemble down, even if trying to replace it with something else.

In any event, the chorus only appears at the very end of the piece, but with one of the most powerful, ‘sticky’ melodies of the whole symphony, and there’s something ethereal, powerful, obviously human about the human voice that another instrument will never achieve, and it brings a unique level of focus and emotion to this work.

For a ‘revolutionary’ symphony, the piece is awfully quiet. It has its loud, tumultuous violent moments, but the inner movements (all of them, really) have their moments of serenity. More to the point, though, is that all the movements of this symphony end quietly. Seems rather tame for where it comes from.

While I have come very much not to mind this symphony and enjoy it more than I did months ago (and far more than no’s 2 or 3), it doesn’t take me on a journey. I don’t feel a strong sense of narrative from beginning to end, a cohesion to the piece that drives it forward. Maybe that’s a problem with the recordings, or with me, but likely the latter. I don’t get much of a sense that I must continue listening, like I do with Shostakovich, Mahler, sometimes Bruckner (but rarely, to be honest), other well-known composers of enormous works.

It’s considered the man’s magnum opus, and it’s his biggest work, the potential upside of that being that its size is one of the things that makes it unapproachable; perhaps cast in a much smaller, less epic setting, his work would be really special. He has 24 more symphonies for me to look into and find out, but we won’t be doing any of them any time soon. See you next week.

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