Magazine article Gramophone

Nikolay Myaskovsky: The Conscience of Russian Music

Magazine article Gramophone

Nikolay Myaskovsky: The Conscience of Russian Music

Article excerpt

Nikolay Myaskovsky

The Conscience of Russian Music

By Gregor Tassie

Rowman and Littlefield, HB, 438pp, 51.95 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-4422-3132-0

Gregor Tassie nears his conclusion he writes that 'Above all else, Myaskovsky composed serious music for himself and for other musicians'. This is surely correct. And the fact that this copious output is so consistently well crafted and so obviously heartfelt has been enough to secure it a safe place in surveys of Russian and Soviet music on that basis. On record and in concert, it has struggled for survival. Tassie, perhaps inadvertently, clarifies the problem. 'Nikolay Myaskovsky's music was conveniently forgotten [in the Soviet Union after his death] because he never did conform to the ideology of "socialist realism"; he wrote music for music's sake, not by making compromises to [sic] the regime, and this was the exception in Soviet music.' Correct again, at least in part. That non-conformity was of a principled but passive kind, and certainly had nothing to do with any kind of subversive stance. Apart from his respect for symphonic tradition, Myaskovsky was driven mainly by values of loyalty and service, as Tassie again duly notes. He tried his hand at the kind of overt mass style expected of the Soviet Union's major public figures, but it wouldn't come. At the same time, there was hardly a trace of irony, sarcasm or overt resistance in his character. Nor was he given to overt emotionalism. That meant he could not renew or modernise his style, which remained as impervious to the world around it in the 1940s as it had been in the 1910s-if anything more so. Even Tchaikovsky feels more modem, thanks to his fragility and instability. Nor is there the slightest chance of casting Myaskovsky as an oppositionist, in the way that-for better or worse-helps Shostakovich and Prokofiev to continue to capture audiences' imaginations.

Tassie says that Myaskovsky 'suffered from political conditions more than any of his contemporaries'. If by 'contemporaries' he means those born some 10 years before Prokofiev and 25 before Shostakovich, he may well have a point. And Myaskovsky certainly suffered in the sense of not receiving the measure of acclaim he deserved, and of being accused of various ideological sins. But he was not vilified and hounded to the extent that others at the time were, and was not arrested or worse, as befell a select few at various times. Tassie tends to let enthusiasm get the better of him with such sweeping statements. Another case in point: '[Myaskovsky's] achievements and importance in the history of 20th-century music in Russia match those of ... Prokofiev and...Shostakovich.' Or even more wildly: 'The symphonic genre had reached its height in the late 19th century. However, twenty years later it was in "crisis".' Large doses of salt are clearly needed here.

Having said that, it is surely true that in its own way Myaskovsky's career exemplifies the vicissitudes of Silver Age and Soviet Russian musical life. In particular his personal creative journey is marked by the overriding issue for artists of the relationship between the individual and the collective. This is why it is worth relating the detail that Tassie has amassed from the compendious Russian published volumes of collected materials and reminiscences, supplemented by correspondence, archival materials and reviews both by and of the composer. …

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