Symphony No. 6, Op. 23 (1923)

Symphony No. 6, Op. 23 (1923)

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert Forgotten Patriotisms: Music as Political History

During his lifetime Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950) was regarded along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich as one of the greatest Soviet composers and at one time as the leading Russian symphonist. He was prolific (27 symphonies, 13 quartets, 9 piano sonatas, 2 cantatas, numerous songs, piano and orchestral pieces) and widely performed in Russia and in the West. Leopold Stokowski, for example, conducted several of Miaskovsky’s symphonies, including the American premiere of the Sixth in November 1926. Today, however, Miaskovsky is among the most unknown and rarely performed composers.

Unlike that of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Miaskovsky’s true perception of the Soviet regime and its reflection in his music continues to be a puzzle. Did he play a double game, when he wrote in 1931-32 his optimistic Twelfth ,the Kolkhoz Symphony, that celebrated the collective farms pushed on the peasantry under Stalin’s collectivization plan, causing horrible famine in the Ukraine, millions of deaths and arrests and eventually the destruction of Russian farming culture? Was he under pressure when he wrote dozens of songs based on idiotic verses about comrade Stalin and happy Soviet folks? How sincere was he in his Autobiographical Notes, written in 1936 for Sovietskaya Musika magazine? Can he be trusted in his negative description of the Sixth symphony as a reflection of a weak-willed and neurotic attitude?

Miaskovsky began composition of his Sixth Symphony in 1921, the fourth year after the October Revolution. The country had just begun a slow recovery from the catastrophic losses of World War One and the Civil War. After serving as a military engineer at the German front (following his family tradition, Miaskovsky graduated from School of Military Engineering in 1902) and then working in Moscow for the Red Army General Staff, the composer in 1921 joined the faculty of the Moscow Conservatory. This finally ended years of a professional dual identity. He would work in the Conservatory for thirty years and become the leading professor of composition in the Soviet Union, highly respected for his mastery and ethics and teacher to dozens of students including Aram Khachaturian and Rodion Shchedrin. He held high positions in the music departments of the State Publishing House and of the Narkompros (equivalent of the Ministry of Education). Modest, soft-spoken, completely dedicated to music and very knowledgeable, he had a circle of good friends, who soon would start the famous Association of Contemporary Music.

However, the shadows of the recent Revolution, Red Terror, and Petersburg famine, to which he lost his beloved aunt–in fact, his surrogate mother–followed him relentlessly. In 1918, his father and Dr. Revidsev, one of his closest friends, past away. The experience was agonizing. No less tragic was witnessing the crushing of the Revolution’s redemptive ideal under the brutality of the new regime and bloodlines of the Civil War.

The new Symphony was a farewell to the victims of these dark years, a spiritual journey, an attempt to live in music through the tragedy and mystery of death and to come to grips with it. A very private person, the composer only later mentioned some links between his experience and the Symphony, but the music speaks for itself. People wept at the end of its first performance in Moscow, 1924. Many considered Miaskovsky’s Sixth to be the greatest Russian symphony since the Sixth of Tchaikovsky, the Pathetique.

This is probably the most sincere and personal of all Miaskovsky’s symphonies. It is also one of the most tragic even for this composer, who, prone to melancholy and depression, generally did not show much optimism, joy or humor in his music (in earlier years he signed his articles “Misanthrope”). In this case he was very close to Tchaikovsky, whose last symphony, heard by thirteen-year old Miaskovsky, made a shocking and lasting impression on the boy. Both were almost obsessed by the mystery of death (the medieval Dies Irae theme appears in many Miaskovsky’s works, including the Sixth symphony).

Deeply emotional and dark, with complicated counterpoint textures, creeping, dissonant, often bitonal harmonies, nervous rhythms and strangely shaped, sometimes declamatory melodic lines, Miaskovsky’s music–particularly the Sixth, may be classified as an example of “Russian Expressionism”. At the same time it bears features of another branch of Russian music, which is epical, meditative, rooted in the philosophy of pantheism.

Miaskovsky viewed the Symphony as a narrative with an inner psychological and philosophical plot that could be recognized through development and connections of themes and motifs. In the Sixth several themes penetrate the whole gigantic four-movement structure, bringing in the sense of musical unity and becoming meaningful symbols.

The Symphony starts with six explosive chords in a recitative-like rhythm. This briefest of introductions is followed by the main subject, masculine and nervous at the same time, with long and complicated development, reminding us of Tchaikovsky’s last symphonies. The second subject–with its very Russian song-like melody played by a horn and then violin solo–also produces quite a long episode. This is a rare moment in Miaskovsky’s music of sheer sensual beauty. However, the image is full of inner pain; the beauty is doomed. Time and time again during the tumultuous development section the composer brings this theme back. It changes, however. Intense, dramatic, passionate, it appears in the general climax of the first movement only to give way to the sharp chords of introduction that sound now with anger and resistance. Recapitulation begins…the long sad coda-farewell brings–unexpectedly and therefore more strikingly–a mysterious, almost otherworldly mood.

The second movement evokes the image of diabolical whirlwinds in Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and has a similar structure —with a lyrical “island” in the middle. Its pastoral sonority includes, however, the Dies Irae motif. What comes to mind is Paradise, the eternal light of life after death (and the final part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera-liturgy The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh–Miaskovsky’s favorite).

The third movement starts with a gloomy melody played by strings in unison. Then the second theme from the first movement appears. Here it is transformed into a picture of Mother Russia in all its enchanting magnificent beauty. One more association comes to mind: the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second symphony. The Dies Irae “paradise pastoral” and a brief reminder of the diabolical whirlwinds–both from the second movement–lead to an enormous emotional wave, culminating in a brief, but striking moment of frustration and despair. The recapitulation brings back the main theme of the movement. Like the first movement, it ends with a long farewell, dissolving in silence.

The beginning of the Finale seems shockingly cheerful. The French revolutionary songs “Carmagnola” and “Ca Ira” follow each other, promising a typically loud, victorious celebration of revolution. Suddenly a recitative brings a theater-like change of scenery and mood: funeral chords, almost inaudible “steps” (Dies Irae in a lowest register) and a cry from the orchestra lead to a new theme. This simple melody of a sustained grief came from the old Russian religious song “How Soul Left the Body.” First played by the orchestra as a chain of variations, it is interrupted twice by the intrusion of the “Carmagnola” and “Ca Ira”. Much later the choir enters–at first with a tune reminiscent of the Yurodiviy’s cry from the opera Boris Godunov, and then with the song “How Soul Left the Body”–now with words, simple and touching. The Symphony ends, however, with the image of the beautifu,l eternal world (the main theme of the third movement)–the image of memory rather than hope.

No wonder that in the Soviet Union the Sixth Symphony was virtually forbidden–it certainly did not fit the idea of a model Soviet composer, who should greet the Revolution without any doubts.