Patrick Zuk’s new biography draws on a wealth of unexplored sources and offers the first comprehensive critical reappraisal of the life and works of composer Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950). In today’s post, Dr. Zuk offers a glimpse into this compelling account of this long-neglected but notable Soviet artist.
With the advent of glasnost in 1986, Russian cultural studies underwent a far-reaching transformation. The relaxation of censorship and lifting of restrictions on access to information made possible a more truthful reckoning with the Soviet past, free from the mendacities and distortions of state propaganda. The changed climate encouraged efforts to rediscover neglected aspects of the country’s cultural heritage and to re-examine the careers and achievements of notable artists.
Prior to glasnost, the study of Russian and Soviet music in the West was beset with significant hindrances—not least, the practical difficulties of travelling to the USSR and securing permission to consult materials in Soviet archives. In consequence, scholars were largely reliant on Soviet publications, which avoided discussion of sensitive subjects and were often of dubious trustworthiness. Much valuable work has been done in the intervening period to put our knowledge of the period on a sounder footing, but the lives and work of many notable Soviet musicians still await thorough critical reconsideration.
My study of Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950) contributes to this ongoing project of reappraisal. Regarded in his lifetime as a major figure comparable in significance to Shostakovich and Prokofiev, Myaskovsky’s reputation was swiftly eclipsed after his death and his music was seldom heard in the concert hall. Outside Russia, Myaskovsky was little more than a name accorded passing mention in standard reference works—and then, almost invariably in connection with his so-called ‘Collective Farm’ Symphony (1932), ostensibly written to laud Stalin’s reform of Soviet agriculture. The symphony was routinely instanced as exemplifying Soviet composers’ capitulation to ideological pressures and enforced abandonment of modernist experimentation.
The implied negative characterisation of Myaskovsky is deeply unjust. Far from being an abject conformist, he demonstrated remarkable personal and professional integrity even in the most challenging circumstances. Of all the composers condemned for modernist decadence in the notorious Central Committee resolution on music promulgated in 1948, he was the only one who refused to make the grovelling public apology expected of him. The ‘Collective Farm’ Symphony was essentially a journalistic fiction. Myaskovsky’s output is notable for the conspicuous paucity of compositions on ideological subjects and his unwavering preoccupation with ‘abstract’ instrumental genres—the piano sonata, the string quartet, and above all, the symphony. During the inter-war period, his music was championed by leading foreign conductors such as Leopold Stokowski and Frederick Stock. At its finest, it is deeply moving and evinces a highly refined craftsmanship: it unquestionably deserves an enduring place in the repertoire.
The story of Myaskovsky’s life is of absorbing interest. A military engineer by training, he was twenty-five by the time he managed to extricate himself from the army and enrolled to study composition at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. He had just begun to establish himself professionally when he was called up for active service on the outbreak of the First World War. He was soon dispatched to the Eastern Front, from which he was lucky to return alive; and he would remain in the armed forces until 1921, throughout the turbulent events of the October Revolution and ensuing Civil War, until he could eventually resign his commission to accept a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatoire. By the end of the 1920s, he was regarded as the leading Russian symphonist of his generation. Myaskovsky’s subsequent career vividly illustrates the challenges that artists confronted in attempting to work out a modus vivendi with Soviet power and sheds a fascinating light on the circumstances in which they had to live and work.
Drawing on extensive quantities of previously unexplored archival documentation, my book portrays Myaskovsky against the backdrop of his turbulent times. It explores his relationship with other prominent musicians, including his Conservatoire classmates Sergey Prokofiev and Boris Asafiev, and his composition students Aram Khachaturian and Dmitry Kabalevsky. I hope that it might help his music to find new listeners and prompt a more extensive reconsideration of the musical life of his era.
PATRICK ZUK is Professor of Music at Durham University.