Symphony No. 21 in F-sharp minor, Op. 51 (1940)

Symphony No. 21 in F-sharp minor, Op. 51 (1940)

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert Behind the Curtain, performed on Oct 1, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the musical history of the former Soviet Union, one can hardly find a more mysterious and contradictory figure than Nikolai Yakovlevich Myaskovsky. The author of 27 symphonies, four of which were completed before 1917, he was considered by the Soviet music establishment to be a torchbearer of the great symphonic tradition, and in the list of outstanding Soviet composers is always named deservingly just after Prokofiev and Shostakovich. A highly respected and exceptionally knowledgeable musician, he was called by his colleagues “the musical conscience of Moscow.” In the course of nearly thirty years of professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, he educated dozens of composers and had a great and positive influence–both professional and ethical–on the younger generations. (The long list of his students includes, among others, Aram Khachaturian, Boris Shekhter, Vissarion Shebalin and Dmitri Kabalevsky.) He had been a devoted friend and admirer of Sergey Prokofiev since their days at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, when, in spite of the fact that Myaskovsky was ten years older, they started a unique professional and spiritual alliance which lasted for forty years. To conclude the list, we must mention that he received numerous state awards (together with Shostakovich and Khachaturian, he was the first to receive the newly established Stalin Prize) and his music was regularly performed in the Soviet Union and known abroad.

At the same time he was a very unhappy man who led a rather reclusive, lonely and extremely modest life (he had never been married and lived with his sister) and who often complained about the burdens of his pedagogical responsibilities. As a composer he struggled during his entire life to reach a more organic stylistic quality and a higher level of self-expression and was never fully satisfied with the creative results. His letters to Prokofiev written after the October Revolution of 1917 often reveal a state of “gray” depression…

During World War I the 33-year-old Myaskovsky served as a military engineer on the Austrian front. According to family tradition, he received a military education at one of the best Russian military schools. That war, the Revolution and the Civil War (1 918-1921), during which he witnessed bloodshed, human sufferings, injustice and destruction, and went through personal losses and illnesses, had an enormous impact on him. His tragic Sixth Symphony (1922-1923) is a truthful and emotional reflection of his feelings and the strongest, the most sincere musical document of its time, written in the Soviet Union. It was created by a master of a great sensitivity and keen perception, a true heir to Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Mahler. What could a man with his background have been thinking and feeling while witnessing the advancement of the Communist leadership, its suspicion and hatred for everything which represented the culturally sophisticated past?

During the early and mid-twenties, however, he was involved in the activities of ACM (Association for Contemporary Music) – a group of the most educated and avant-garde composers. But after an unsuccessful battle with RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians–representative of the most vulgar interpretation of Marxist ideology), the ACM ended its existence. Gone too were the concerts of Western and Russian modern music, intellectual discussions in music magazines, visits by prominent foreigners–conductors and composers–and relative freedom. Then the 1930s came–along with the increasing power of Stalin and the country’s transformation into a totalitarian empire, where everything–from the industry to the arts and personal lives–was under strict control and under suspicion.

What was the solution for people like Myaskovsky? How could they deal with this new gloomy and absurd reality? For Myaskovsky the answer lay in routine everyday existence and regular work, in the idea of honest service (remember his noble military background) and in his love for and undying interest in music. Did he know about the horrible famine in the Ukraine in 1931-1932–the result of Stalin’s “collectivization”–when he wrote his Twelfth Symphony, Kolkhoz? Did he sincerely believed what was written in Soviet newspapers? We’ll never know. People were cautious at that time. For instance, Myaskovsky’s letters to Prokofiev, which were very detailed as far as music was concerned, did not contain any hint of his opinion about contemporary events, nor do they even mention anything regarding political issues.

Nevertheless, for Myaskovsky the composer, the 1930s were marked by the clarification and simplification of his style and “sovietization” of his subjects, and these changes corresponded (by coincidence or intentionally? sincerely or under pressure?) with the official demands for the “democratization” of the arts.

The Thirteenth Symphony (one of his best compositions), written in 1932 and marked by the original “linear-constructivist attempt at destroying tonality,” as he wrote in his autobiography (1936), became his farewell to the last years of modernism and experimentation.

The period of the 1930s was also his most productive–eleven symphonies, violin concerto, several quartets–though not his happiest: his health was deteriorating and he frequently became depressed, which was obviously the result not only of aging, but also of suppressed negative feelings.

The Twenty-first Symphony, written at the end of this period, in 1940, is, perhaps, Myaskovsky’s most masterfully executed score. However for us it is also a mirror of the duality of his existence, the telling evidence of the conflict between his feelings and the outside world.

The most striking feature of this perfectly proportional symphony (it consists of one movement arranged in a sonata-form with introduction and conclusion and lasts less than twenty minutes) is the difference between the emotional world of the introduction and the images of the main part (though thematically they are connected). The first is a sincere, profound confession of a suffering human soul–equal to the best pages of Tchaikovsky. The second is a masterful construction, filled with bright, expressive and naturally developed images; nevertheless, it leaves the strange impression of something artificial, which is done more according to the rules than from the heart.

All of Myaskovsky’s dark melancholy, his fears and shadows of the past, his loneliness and longings, are concentrated in the introduction. The soft opening theme of a clarinet solo is close in character to the most lyrical melancholy type of Russian folk song–protyazhnaya, (which means “drawn-out” “drawling”). The answer to this lonely voice is the dark chords of low strings–they usher us into the second theme. Its development, filled with growing emotional intensity, leads into the third theme, which is openly tragic. Each of the three themes undergoes a development, and how fascinating is this masterly, refined and natural polyphonic (as well as emotional) development. Remarkably, however, the music never goes beyond traditional language: it is tonal, with elements of modality (rooted, in this case, in Russian folk music), with the traditional balance between melody and texture, and traditional orchestration, similar to that of Tchaikovsky and Taneyev.

The Allegro starts with a masculine, energetic theme, which can be associated with the dynamic and heroic images of the “socialist life.” In a transitional section, the second theme of the introduction appears as a dark shadow of the inner world, but soon another image comes–the second subject, a calm consolation, which develops into a sunny hymn to life. Its last pastoral sounds are transformed into a fanfare which opens the development section. Here it is again hard to find something unpredictable and different from the traditional scheme. The first part of the section is dedicated to the development of the first subject, and the second part, to the second subject, which appears in the climax of the section in its most triumphant tone. But its ending captures our attention: funereal chords and a Pause–the shadow of death, the sign of inner truth…

The recapitulation restores the balance with no remarkable changes in comparison with the exposition. Only the concluding section, a kind of epilogue, where all the themes from the introduction emerge again (with the most important role given to the third, most desperate theme), brings back the real tragedy of a lonely and lost soul.

Until the end of the 1950s, nobody in the Soviet Union ever mentioned that the Twenty-first Symphony had been written as a commission for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary (a similar commission from the orchestra was received by Casella, Roy Harris, Milhaud and Walton) and dedicated to its conductor Frederick Stock, who admired Myaskovsky’s music, performed it frequently and met the composer during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1938. The Soviet premiere of the symphony took place on November 6, 1940, under the baton of Alexander Gauk, followed by the American premiere on December 26, 1940, by the Chicago Symphony with Stock. The symphony was praised by Soviet critics as a poetic hymn about Mother Russia and awarded with the newly established Stalin’s Prize of the First degree. Since then, it has become one of the most popular works of the composer.

Should we blame Prokofiev for creating the great film score for Ivan Grozny, which interpreted history according to Stalin’s dictatorial purposes, or Shostakovich for writing his ballets based on a typical soviet propagandist cliche? Should we blame Myaskovsky for his Kolkhoz or Aviation (Sixteenth) symphonies? Or for receiving Stalin’s prize or simply for survival? I do not believe so. To differing degrees, they all experienced enormous inner tragedy and frustration; the deprivation of their freedom of speech and self-expression, the almost complete lack of outside information, the constant accompaniment of Soviet propaganda and official orders, i.e., what to write, how to write. In addition, there was the ordeal of the public character assassination in 1949, after which any of them could expect imprisonment and none of their works was performed or published for several years. To survive emotionally and artistically, Shostakovich had his anger and irony, Prokofiev, his enormous vitality and foreign experience.

Myaskovsky did not have any of that. Silent suffering was his destiny, and throughout his life he was doomed to this conflict between the “outer self” and the “inner self.” Maybe here we can find the solution to the puzzle of his art, which, in spite of its mastery and sophistication, had never become such spiritual bread for his compatriots as did the music of his younger colleagues, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Perhaps, his time has yet to come?