A Composer and His Times – A Life Story of Captivating Interest
Nikolay Myaskovsky: A Composer and His Time
Nikolay Myaskovsky (1881-1950) is a composer whose music, until very recently, was among the lost. As Patrick Zuk points out at the start of this captivating biography, he was nonetheless considered the greatest Russian symphonist of his generation in the late 1920s, and during his lifetime his works attracted the attention of many conductors. orchestra inside and outside Russia, including Wilhelm Furtwängler, Leopold Stokowski and Yevgeny Svetlanov, who later recorded Myaskovsky’s 27 symphonies in a reissued series in the Warner Classics Svetlanov edition in 2008.
Now comes this monumental survey of the composer’s life and work, which for the first time (in English or Russian) gives Myaskovsky his critical due. This formidably detailed portrait of an introverted and reclusive artist draws on a wealth of archival material in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere in Russia to reveal (among other things) a life story of gripping interest that intersects with every moment the history of Russia itself. throughout the first half of the 20th century. Myaskovsky thus appears not only as the “fourth man” of Soviet music (alongside his much better known contemporaries, Prokofiev and Asafiev, as well as Shostakovich), but as an author of orchestral and chamber music of the very first magnitude.
Zuk’s wonderfully engaging narrative immerses the reader in the fabric and felt life of late Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia. His harrowing chapters on Myaskovsky’s experiences as a military engineer during the Great War (1914-17) and the aftermath of the Russian Revolution (1918-21) are worth the price of admission alone, not to mention his masterful career recovery from Myaskovsky. as a Soviet artist in the 1930s and 1940s.
While this biography is constantly attentive to Myaskovsky’s creative realm (the symphonies in particular are both lavishly illustrated and vividly appraised in evocative prose that deliberately avoids jargon), its scope goes far beyond the boundaries of the music itself. . It is for this reason that the book is intended to appeal to a readership interested in the political, social and cultural history of Soviet Russia, despite its sovereign engagement with Myaskovsky’s singularly tenacious development as an artist.
Even in his early years as a composer, as he struggled to take time off from his civil service duties to complete his third symphony (1913-14), Myaskovsky wrote to a friend that was all he needed. could not do “to make a lay down and open a factory of symphonies”. his musical utterances (he was inspired in this respect by Tchaikovsky, to whose music he was unfailingly devoted) with the remote eloquence of Shostakovich, a more well-known culture of the same genre.
“Finally, Joyce has his monument,” said The Economist of Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce when it appeared in 1959. One is tempted to extend the same distinction to Zuk’s definitive study of Myaskovsky. It’s a stellar achievement.
Harry White is Professor of Music at UCD and Fellow of the Royal Irish Academy of Music