Book Reviews 56
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Nikolay Myaskovsky: a Composer and His Times
The Boydell Press, 2021
Hardback, 582 pages
ISBN 978-1-78327-575-5 £60, $99
ISBN 978-1-78744-815-5 £19.99,
In a 1973 sleevenote, Glenn Gould asked “Hindemith: Will His Time Come? Again?” Seven years after Gregor Tassie’s biography of Myaskovsky (DSCH 44), we now have a second, perhaps prompting us to echo that thought with reference to the Russian.
Myaskovsky—romantic, private, depressive, and given to agonising self-doubt—was often misunderstood. His successes have sometimes been exaggerated, making the reversals of fortune seem that much worse. With performances and recordings so rare, a recovery seems difficult, particularly given his (unfairly acquired) reputation as a gloomy, academic bore.
But Zuk is dedicated to putting Myaskovsky back at the centre of Soviet music, where he undoubtedly belongs. Previous studies have been frustrated by inaccessible archives and heavily Sovietised publications, notably Livanova’s shallow ideological cut-and-paste job (1953) and Ikonnokov’s (admittedly better) volumes. Nevertheless, these helped create an image and a narrative of a composer struggling towards conformity that would outlive the Soviet Union. Finally, for all his public duties and profile, the composer himself was determinedly private, particularly about his “problematic” personal history: a father in the Tsarist military, and early interest in the “advanced” music and Symbolist poetry that would later be suppressed. To counter those accretions and omissions, Zuk plunges deep into the archive, drawing on the composer’s correspondence and other unpublished documents, though there are some notable gaps. However, this concentration on archive sources means he tends not to engage with studies by writers such as Frolova-Walker, Mikkonen, and Fairclough.
But while Myaskovsky did try to sidestep musical politics, his non-engagement has been overemphasised—he was, after all, a prominent composer and, according to Zuk, an effective administrator. Nevertheless, he was often considered insufficiently political, if not actively hostile, though some of those attacks were personal or grew from others’ careerism. Myaskovsky’s response was to withdraw which, Zuk argues, didn’t help.
When Myaskovsky became one of the lightning rods for the events of 1948, Muradeli joined in, blaming his teacher for his incorrect path, though he also had much support. Most painful was Asafiev’s behaviour. The two men had a strange relationship, which Zuk tracks through their correspondence. Myaskovsky valued Asafiev’s advice and opinions but thought little of his compositions and the critic was, in return, jealous of the composer’s apparent successes. Yet the break only came with Asafiev’s 1948 betrayal, after which, like the writer Fadeyev, the critic collapsed into guilt-ridden ineffectual alcoholism. Meanwhile, the seriously ill Myaskovsky’s frequent absences from meetings were maliciously interpreted as defiance. Ironically, though that was not the case, he did rebuff several friends’ suggestions to recant. But he certainly wasn’t naïve and knew when to let criticism go uncontested or even to bend to it—as in his self-flagellating autobiographical sketch in the wake of the Lady Macbeth affair.
Zuk gives brief but telling introductions to many characters, though his recommendations for more information are sometimes rare publications. He digs further into Myaskovsky’s strange relationship with Prokofiev (his hero-worship was not reciprocated, though the cosmopolitan Prokofiev continued to support his “insufficiently modernist” friend). Posthumous psychoanalysis is dodgy on practical and ethical fronts and while noting that Myaskovsky avoided romantic relationships and had gay friends, Zuk concludes that there is no conclusion to be drawn. On the other hand, he sees the physical and emotional traumas that Myaskovsky suffered before and during the First World War as driving forces in the composition of the Sixth Symphony.
Myaskovsky’s serious attitude to art can be seen in his criticism. As Prokofiev noted in 1910, “Myaskovsky does not exist apart from music.” Banality and unprofessionalism (a reaction to having to correct his own spotty early training) are frequent complaints. His interest in Western composers waxed and waned and, especially during WW1, he felt that music transcended nationality. However, he promoted Russians, not chauvinistically but through early 20th-century Slavophilia. In one of the most interesting sections, Zuk uses Myaskovsky’s criticism—praise for Scriabin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schönberg, and Tchaikovsky—to reflect on the composer’s own music.
He also admired Shostakovich and the younger composer grew to trust him enough to show him the First Violin Concerto and From Jewish Folk Poetry, works that he suspected would get a rocky reception. Myaskovsky preferred the Fourth to the Fifth Symphony and thought highly of the Second Piano Sonata and, though he generally avoided choral works, his support for The Song of the Forests seems to have been more than political expediency.
Zuk admits that his is not an exhaustive analytical study, but he does look at several key works, avoiding knee-jerk panegyrics so his praise hits all the more strongly. He discusses how the Sixth Symphony relates to the Revolution, and the Tenth to Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, and shows why he feels works such as the Eighth Symphony or, for all its relative popularity, the Cello Concerto, fail. There are interesting comparisons of Symphonies 22 and 23 to Shostakovich’s “Leningrad.” He understands the careful preparation Myaskovsky’s music needs and gives leeway to works such as Silence which, he feels, are better than any existing recordings. The symphonies are the most numerous and best-known part of Myaskovsky’s output, but Zuk gives very little space to the string quartets or piano sonatas.
Myaskovsky’s academicism isn’t altogether denied; his themes were sometimes tailored more for contrapuntal or developmental potential than inherent interest. But he did not “decline” into academic post-Tchaikovskianism, rather he was always composing against the background of the Russian tradition, even in his early “complex” period, when he was being denounced as a modernist, and he continued that into his “period of simplification.”
The stylistic change began following the Thirteenth Symphony in 1933, just as Socialist Realism came to a head. This makes it easy to agree with the Soviet view that he was finally falling into line with the new aesthetic, especially when that tendency continued into more “classical” later works. However, Zuk sees it as much as a personal artistic decision and points to Myaskovsky’s concentration on “abstract” music, and his resistance to writing operas and ballets or working in theatre or film. As important as this was for him artistically, it cost him financially and attracted suspicion about his political commitment. An opera of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot did drift in and out of consideration over a number of years but Zuk doubts that such a complex and philosophically inclined work is adaptable, though both Weinberg and Alexander Smelkov have written operas and there are several film versions.
The work-list is minimalist, referring the reader to Shlifstein’s Notograficheskiy spravochnik (1962) and Sobraniye materialov (1964) for fuller details, though these hardly fall easily to hand. There are no publication details (much is on IMSLP) and in place of a discography he mentions some notable recordings. Against that, the bibliography is extensive and relevant not just to students of Myaskovsky.
The 32 photos are welcome but some are poorly reproduced. The two maps share a page but are missed opportunities. The first is simply a mass of places he visited during WW1, with no indication of the actual journeys, while the second, tracking his WW2 evacuation from Tblisi to Frunze, includes vast tracts of irrelevance. Enlarged, reworked, and placed appropriately within the text, they would have been more useful.
But these are minor caveats. Zuk has advanced Myaskovsky scholarship significantly, not only in ascertaining new facts but bringing a level of critical insight to the work that could prove the basis for a real reappraisal of the composer. If performers will step up, perhaps his time will come. Again.
John Leman Riley