Silentium, Op. 9 (1909)

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1905 Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881–1950), who would become one of the most prolific and significant Russian composers of the twentieth century, author of twenty-seven symphonies, was still in the military. Following family tradition, he spent years at the prestigious St. Petersburg Cadet College and then at the Academy of Military Engineering, and upon graduating in 1902 served in Moscow as a military engineer, in spite of his growing passion for music. He played piano and violin, studied composition privately with Reinhold Glière, met with and sought advice from the unquestionable leader of Russian music, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and wrote numerous art songs and piano pieces, but did not enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 1906. He spent five years there, graduating in 1911, the oldest among his fellow students. Sergei Prokofiev, ten years his junior and a student of the same composition class of Anatoly Lyadov, noted in his diary in 1910, “Miaskovsky does not exist outside music . . . just one silent shadow. He is strange. And so uncommunicative—especially with ladies [ . . . ] When music is concerned, he is a completely different man, for whom nothing exists but one idea.”

This shy, modest, awkward man, who was prone to melancholy and depression and mentioned his compositions with self-deprecating humor even to his trusted composer-friend Prokofiev, possessed not only a sensitive soul, but also an inquisitive intellect, and was attuned to the cultural movements of the time. At the dawn of a new century, Russia experienced a passionate affair with symbolism. Its obsession with the mysterious and the unspoken, with the realms of imagination and dreams, with death and loneliness, chaos and decay, resonated with spiritual longings of Russian fin-de-siècle society.

The poetry of Zinaida Gippius, the siren of Russian symbolism, found its way into a number of Miaskovsky’s songs. Among other favorites was the poet Konstantin Bal’mont, an admirer and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s prose and poetry was known in Russia since the 1860s, but his widespread popularity, which soon reached a cult level, began in the mid-1880s, when a collected edition of Poe tales in Russian translation was published for the first time.

With his innate pessimism, Miaskovsky felt very close to the psychological horrors of Poe’s tales. Silentium, in Bal’mont’s opinion the best of Poe’s tales, captured his imagination in 1908. He mentions in a letter to Prokofiev “a very good plot.” He writes in another one that he is “enormously enthralled with the plot,” adding that it will be an “orchestral tale” for a very big orchestra and that the whole piece will be devoid of any light note—“only darkness and horror.”

Silentium, completed in 1909, was the first of Miaskovsky’s compositions to be publicly performed, though a year before his First Sympony was written. The premiere of Silentium took place on June 12, 1911, on the summer stage in Sokolniki (Moscow) under the direction of Konstantin Saradjev, who became a friend and an avid advocate of Miaskovsky’s music.

Miaskovsky called Silentium his much-beloved child, and rightly so—it is one of the most sincere and passionate of his pieces, remarkable in its combination of spontaneity, originality and well-thought technical mastery. (The composer polished and edited it up to the mid-1920s). Its twenty-minute one-movement structure follows Poe’s tale very closely—a dark parable about the unbearable horror of eternal silence, told through a symbolic figure of a man, tired and full of sorrow, longing to be alone. He sits on a gray rock amidst a sad landscape of desolation, taking in stride terrifying noises and whispers, dangers of wild animals and tremendous storms, but runs in horror when a sudden deadly silence falls, bestowed by demons. The composer realizes all of this with emotional and visual precision in a sonata-like structure, which he, following the narrative, transforms into a natural flow of images both picturesque and deeply touching, creating one of the earliest and finest examples of Russian musical expressionism.