So in case you didn’t know, and it seems virtually no one did, I spent the month of February listening to a symphony a day from Nikolai Myaskovsky. February has 28 days, and Myaskovsky has 27 symphonies and three sinfoniettas. I tweeted throughout the month with the #myasksymph hashtag as kind of a live-tweet of the month’s project.
We’ve featured a few of Myaskovsky’s early symphonies (actually multiple times) on the blog, but it’s been some time since he made an appearance, a few years actually. As symphonists go, he is a pretty notable one, having been a friend of Prokofiev and earning himself the title of ‘the father of the Soviet symphony,’ even being ranked in a poll that Wikipedia mentions thusly:
In 1935, a survey made by CBS of its radio audience asking the question “Who, in your opinion, of contemporary composers will remain among the world’s great in 100 years?” placed Myaskovsky in the top ten along with Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Ravel, de Falla and Fritz Kreisler.
Well, 82 years later, a few of those names are certainly hi-profile composers, in fact most of them are, but Myaskovsky has struggled to maintain a reputation for himself, at least in the West, while his fellow countrymen on that list, perhaps most notably Shostakovich, another composer whose career was heavily influenced by the political climate, is now highly regarded by most everyone as a respected composer, even if you might not be a lover of his music.
So what’s the story with Myaskovsky?
Well, I wanted to try to find that out myself. One of the things that I had heard about his output is that he caved a bit to Soviet pressures to write ‘acceptable’ Soviet music, rather than pushing any envelopes or walking on any thin ice like Shostakovich did. As a result, his later works are said to have become less daring as he became more experienced as a composer. That’s an interesting evolution, to become more conservative as one’s skill increases, so I was curious to look for this trajectory, but there was another thing.
In discussing Myaskovsky’s general neglect (again, at least in the West), people mention the volume of his output as one of the largest hurdles in appreciating or coming to know his music. Mahler only wrote a handful of symphonies in comparison to Myaskovsky, but despite their enormity, they are each individual enough to be addressed and remembered independently (at least for me), and the same goes for Bruckner. But Myaskovsky has three times their output, give or take, with some equally epic works at or over an hour.
So, then, what did I learn? What is there to glean from spending a month, granted only a bit at a time, listening to almost 18 hours of music in 30 works?
Well, for one, he was prolific. I’d be curious to find out where his inspiration came from, as only a few of them stood out to me as having specific programs or subjects. The sixth, as we have discussed, came after a period of war, when the composer lost his father and other friends and family. The 10th, 12th, and 16th have their own program ideas, and a few symphonies (23 and 26) are titled as being based on certain folk themes. Symphonies 11-16 were written one right after the other, with sequential opus numbers 34-39.
So then, where do we start? Well, I’d say maybe not with the symphonies, but then again it depends on what you’re used to listening to. If Shostakovich’s stone-like, sometimes even cold, menacing sound, juxtaposed against warm beauty or sarcastic humor is your thing, then check out no. 6 for sure, or a handful of the other early works, like the second.
If everything I’ve said so far sounds challenging, then give a listen to his three sinfoniettas, opus numbers 10, 32, and 68. Actually op. 32 is listed in the Svetlanov box set as sinfonietta in A, but it’s actually the second work of op. 32, for string orchestra, listed on Wikipedia as being in B minor. Hmmmm. In any case, the sinfoniettas are bold, colorful, shorter, lighter, but still very much within Myaskovsky’s sound world. The first sinfonietta sounds very much like what we might hear from late Rimsky-Korsakov, and the third is a powerful, intense ride.
The later symphonies are indeed far more mellow. I’m just now finishing my listen to the final symphony of this month-long playlist and listening project, and the tenderness and nostalgia of the second movement almost had me a bit emotional. There’s certainly a noticeable polish and skill to the composer’s writing here, an almost Rimsky-Korsakov-esque orchestration, where textures and color stand out like they don’t in the earlier works, but they’re generally more approachable, of a more Romantic nature, but still clearly of a more modern era and with some rawness and intensity. They don’t have the density and hardness of the earliest works, leaving one to wonder what Myaskovsky would have sounded like if he’d had the freedom to express his entire palette of emotions outside of the confines of Soviet acceptability.
I certainly can’t say I recall this symphony or that symphony specifically, as I really only did give one listen, rarely two, to each work on its assigned day (in order, obviously, with the sinfoniettas added to whatever day they fell closest to). The above overall view is about as good as it gets, knowing just about where in his output to look for what kind of sound, but I will admit that while I was enormously impressed with the volume of his output, there were undoubtedly a few less-than-stellar efforts, notably no. 12, which left almost zero impression on me. There were a few others that didn’t leave me as excited to go back and revisit them eventually, but make no mistake: Nikolai Myaskovsky is certainly an unjustly neglected composer, at least in the West. Perhaps he’d have benefited from being a bit less prolific and editing himself a little more, but overall, we’re fortunate to have a cycle like that from Svetlanov with as much music here as there is, even including some symphonic poems and other orchestral works I didn’t get to.
I had toyed with the idea of making small, specific notes about each symphony here in a massive review, but I just can’t. I am not pretending to know these works intimately, and even my 140-character responses to the symphonies were not very insightful.
That all being said, I’ve just now finished the 27th symphony (even though this article will post on the 28th), and as I said in that final #myasksymph tweet, it ends the composer’s symphony cycle in the key in which it began, C minor. There are some similarities to the two works besides just the key. The first sounds cinematic and a bit bland, kind of generally symphonic and Romantic, while the last has a similar richness and lack of challenge or harshness, but with far greater finesse and color.
Again, there are, without question, some less memorable moments in this output of 27 symphonies, but not a single bad work, really. I was eager to get around to listening to the entire Svetlanov set, which I’d had for sometime, and there it is. I can’t speak intelligently about moments of recapitulation and the structure of the movements or things because I really did listen quite passively, but the overall impression is that the composer was talented, creative, driven, expressive, and there’s a lot to enjoy from it. That being said, you might not be willing to spring for a purchase of such a huge set of works, but if you’ve got a streaming service or something, give them some listens.
I really did enjoy this little project, and wished I’d prepared better for it (gotten some other people to go along with it or had more interaction with people), but I have at least two more composers lined up whose symphony cycles will be getting the same treatment, but I’ll be taking a month off from that to do some other things. We’ll have another symphony cycle traversal in April, and probably one in June. Those folks’ complete cycles were much harder to get my hands on, though, so it might be harder to participate if anyone is interested in doing so. Have to think of what those hashtags will be.
Keep a lookout for those on my Twitter, @fugueforthought, and we will see you soon for a new series on the blog. Stay tuned, and thanks for listening.