His life and music
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Nikolai Myaskovsky was born in the military frontier town of Novo Georgiyevsk (present day Lomze) in the Warsaw governorate of the Polish territories of the Tsarist empire on April 20, 1881. He was the second son of Yakov Konstantinovich Myaskovsky and Vera Nikolayevna.
Both parents had military backgrounds, and Nikolai’s father, Yakov was the military engineer in charge of building forts on the frontier with Prussia. The first seven years of Nikolai’s life were spent in a small military cottage in Novo Georgiyevsk where his two sisters also were born, Vera (1885) and Valentina (1887). Nikolai’s grandfather Konstantine Ivanovich had been a tutor at the military Cadet College of Orel, where Yakov had studied, and had also worked as a noted military engineer building fortresses for the Russian Empire. His maternal grandfather, Nikolai Petrakov, had been a supervisor at the military gymnasium in Nizhni Novgorod.
From his memoirs, Nikolai liked playing with his older brother, Sergei (b. 1877), but he also demonstrated a strong preference for arts and imaginative activities and was drawn at a very early age to the piano. His first piano teacher was his aunt, Yelikonida, Yakov’s sister, who had had a musical education. She also had a strong religious inclination which put off Nikolai for its “gloominess and oppressive qualities”, especially in the years after his mother’s death in 1890, when Yelikonida became the children’s guardian.
In 1888, the family moved for a spell to Orenburg, and in 1889 to Kazan, where Nikolai’s third sister, Eughenia (1890) was born. It was in Kazan in 1891 that Nikolai began serious music lessons and he also was enrolled in a Cadet College –the beginning steps of a military engineering career. His first profound musical memory was listening to a piano duet of a medley from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He and his brother attended the local summer theatre and he had strong inspiration from Glinka’s Ivan Susanin, and Orphee aux enfers, and Verstovsky’s The Tomb of Ascold. He showed from the earliest times a very good ear and strong memory and enjoyed scales, exercises and mastered quickly Bertini’s Etudes.
It was in Kazan, and then from 1893 in Nizhni Novgorod that Nikolai began to demonstrate his strong artistic independence and intellectual drive which was to characterize him for the rest of his life. He became a prolific reader of literature and the intellectual arts journals of the day, he was a very assiduous student and was usually tops in his cadet class, and still as a teenager he began playing both classical and popular works and trying out simple composition. Although he took formal music lessons in at the College in Nizhni Novgorod, his strongest frustration was that he was frequently chased off the piano and he felt he did not get enough practice time. Perhaps this led him later to teach himself violin inspired by his cousin, Karl Bogdanovich Brandt, a violinist himself. Nikolai was good enough to play violin in the College orchestra
In 1895 the family moved to St. Petersburg, where in addition to his studies at the Second Cadet College, he began to attend regular concerts around the capital. Brandt often took the teenaged Nikolai to operas and Sunday concerts. At one of these Nikolai was swept away by Beethoven’s Second Symphony, especially the larghetto. The family apartment on Znamenskaya Street became a lively cultural salon. Not only did Nikolai play duets with Brandt, but he also became acquainted with some distant relatives, the Gorodenskys from Helsinki. Alexandra Gorodenskaya was a composer of some accomplishment at that time and her daughter, Maria a skilled pianist. Nikolai and Maria became regular piano partners and, with the mother, the three of them played symphonies and overtures of classics from the German school of composers. In December1896, he attended a concert of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony directed by the famous Arthur Nikisch. Again this was one of the moving music memories of the young Nikolai’s life. He was presented a score of this symphony as a present, which remained one of Nikolai’s prized possessions for the rest of his life.
After his graduation from the military high school in 1899, Nikolai was enrolled in the School of Military Engineering, much against his inclination and desires. His circle of friends at the university included some fanatical followers of Russian progressive, nationalist music, at that time represented by the Big Five—Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, and Balakirev. Rimsky-Koraskov was the pre-eminent composer of the day and a cultural giant in St. Petersburg. Ironically he had a somewhat similar background to Nikolai, being as he also had studied as a military cadet and as a naval officer, before he could break from the military to pursue music professionally. For the next eight years, Nikolai tried to balance his studies in military engineering—which was directing him to a military career in the path of his father and grandfather—and his increasing commitment and love of music. He balanced this by very intensive work. Early in this period, when he was in the fappers battalion in Moscow, he took his first composition lessons with the young, soon to be famous composer, Reinholdt Gliere, a student of Sergei Taneyev who had recommended him.
Through his assiduous pursuit of music outside of his military studies, he fell into the city’s top musical circles. He became a regular at the society of modern music and met Rimsky Korsakov at one of these gatherings. This latter recommended one of his students to begin teaching Nikolai composition. It was in this time in the early years of the 20th century that Myaskovsky began composing. The impetus was both his activity with the Modern Music Society and a renewed interest in modernist Russian literature. He became a follower of Mir Iskustva and Novaya Zizhn and fell in with a circle of modernist poets. He was especially fond of the poetry of Zinaida Gippius to whose verse he set many of his early works. He also began composing songs to works by the Russia symbolist poets.
In active service he had to serve as an engineer in Zaraysk and then in Moscow, but he was fortunate to be posted back in St. Petersburg after only a brief absence. By the year 1905, he had decided to apply for a second degree to the Academy of Law as a way of getting out of the military. But in summer, instead of preparing for his entrance exam he dedicated himself almost entirely to composing songs and pieces for the piano. Much of these he subsequently destroyed thinking that they were immature and dilettantish. By 1906, he had decided that he must get into the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and, although he was still serving his time in the army, all his efforts were dedicated to preparing for the entrance exam after 1907, when his term in the military expired.
He was in fact a late comer to the conservatory, being 25 years old when he applied. His exams were conducted by Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, and Glazunov, all world famous composers of the day. It was a very intimidating experience, and to satisfy Rimsky-Korsakov he had to hide his admiration for Richard Strauss, whom the grand composer particularly disliked. He presented to Glazunov his entrance composition the C minor sonata. Nikolai was admitted and these same examiners became his professors.
His cohort of students including many future musicians and composers of note, but none became closer or was a more important friend than Sergei Prokoviev, who was ten years junior to Myaskovsky. The summer of 1907, after his admission to the conservatory and his final resignation from the army engineers corps, Nikolai embarked on his first period of adult composition and he worked prolifically. It was also in that summer that he himself gave harmony lessons to a candidate for the conservatory, which began his long career in musical pedagogy. In the winter of 1908, he began writing his First Symphony. He quickly determined that composition was his main focus at the Conservatory.
By the time he graduated in 1911, he had composed a number of piano sonatas, another symphony, a few overtures, and a sinfonietta. It was in the summer of that year that his long friendship and sponsorship by the important conducter N. Sarajev began. It was this latter who introduced the Second Symphony in a concert in Moscow. Myaskovsky also found support promptly from the music critic V. Derzhanovsky. Up until the beginning of the first world war, Nikolai activity composed a number of new works including drafts of his third symphony.
The war and the revolution were an interruption. He was called back into the army and served in front lines in Galicia, which he claimed gave him a more democratic outlook on society. He spent 1917 in Revel with the navy and only returned to St. Petersburg in early 1918 for convalescence. Nevertheless he wrote his fourth symphony while recovering, and after the navy transferred him to Moscow in 1919 he wrote the fifth symphony. It was in 1919 that he was appointed to the Moscow Conservatory and became a member of the Soviet organization the Bureau of Composers.
But 1919 was a dark year for Myaskovsky. His father, who was a general in the Tsar’s service nobility, was gunned down on a train station platform by a revolutionary who could not stand the symbols of the old order. Nikolai and his sisters of course were products of this old order and to survive ever after they had to dissemble both their feelings and views and their backgrounds. He was aided by his appetite for prodigious work, both composition and teaching, and by his gentle and taciturn, even retiring personality. Perhaps it was this mild and reticent character which kept him from ever marrying.
In the 1920s and 30s Myaskovsky kept extremely busy and kept out of the political intrigues which plagued the Soviet cultural milieu. In addition to his work in the conservatory and his composition (he wrote another five symphonies during this period), he served as the assistant director of the music department at the Ministry of Education for a year, and was editor of the Music Publishing House, as well as member of the art section of the state education council and a member of the Academy of Arts.
Among his composition students at the Moscow Conservatory over the decades through the second world war, he trained several who would later go on to famous compositional careers in their own right, this group included Alexandrov, Bely, Vitachek, Muradeli, B/Tchaikovsky, but most famous were Kabalevsky, Shebalin, and Khachaturyan. He was greatly admired and loved by his students. Many thought of him a quiet philosopher of music. As a composer he saw himself as a direct descendent of the Big Five group of Russian composers, but he also acknowledged a very high debt to Glazunov and Scriabin. As an active music critic, he was an early and continuous champion of Prokofiev and Stravinsky’s music. Interestingly, his friend Prokofiev also was a strong promoter of Myaskovsky’s works in the concert halls of the west during his first period abroad.
At the Moscow Conservatory in the early 1920s, Nikolai made a life-long friend with P.A. Lamm, professor. It was through Lamm that Myaskovsky began spending his summers at the dacha in Nikolina Gora.
In 1926, Myaskovsky was awarded the title of Artist of Merit of the Russian Soviet Republic, along with his Conservatory colleagues Neuhaus, Goldenweizer, and Igumnov. In 1940 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Arts, and in March 1941 the Stalin Prize in recognition of his 21st Symphony, by which time he was widely considered the greatest of the Soviet symphonists, and one of the three greatest Russian and Soviet composers of his time along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
During the early years of the second world war, after the German invasion of Russia, Myaskovsky was evacuated first to the Caucasus (Kabardino-Balkaria and Tbilisi) and then to Funze (now Bishkek) until mid 1943. Nevertheless he worked on and completed three patriotic symphonies (22nd, 23rd, 24th), string quartets, a sonatina, and several marches as his contribution to the war effort. His 23rd Symphony in fact incorporated folk themes he heard in Kabadino-Balkaria.
After the war, Myaskovsky, in his sixties was awarded the laureate as a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1946 felt the sting of Stalinist repression. Following the celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the October revolution, where it was felt his contribution was too dark and pessimistic, he was denounced by one of his envious colleagues at the Conservatory and in 1948, and this effectively blotted out his career and expelled his works from the concert halls of the Soviet Union.
In the last two years of his life, he worked hard in the privacy of his apartment in Sivtsev Vrazhek trying to bring his opus into order and finish one last symphony, his 27th. He was already very sick in late 1949, but he put off recommended surgery until May the next year. But it was too late. The great composer died in his home in the evening of 8 August 1950, aged 69. He is buried in Novodevichi cemetery, near the graves of the two great Moscow composers, Scriabin and Taneyev. A memorial plaque was put up on his house and a street in Old Arbat was named after him.