Nikolay Myaskovsky: The Composer and his Time
By Patrick Zuk
582 pages, including bibliography and index.
37 black and white illustrations and 70 music texts.
In this, his 140th birth anniversary year, the cobwebs appear to be falling away from our knowledge of the life and music of Nikolay Myaskovsky. 2021 has seen the appearance of new recordings of orchestral, piano, and chamber music, as well as recordings of his songs; now a major new biography of the man has been published. This is the second biography to appear since 2014, when my own monograph Nikolay Myaskovsky: The Conscience of Russian Music was published in the USA.
Patrick Zuk comes from a background in Irish music; he has composed several pieces himself and is the author of a number of publications on Irish music. Since 2008, he has been researching and lecturing on diverse aspects of Myaskovsky. It would seem strange that he should attempt such a major figure in 20th century music without a background in Russian music, and he has not avoided the cold-war stereotypes that some authors have fallen into using. Certainly, he doesn’t appear to take into account much of the information which has emerged since the demise of the USSR through important studies by Hakobian and Maes that offer an authoritative understanding.
One aspect of Zuk’s book is an examination of the composer’s psychological state arising, firstly, from injuries he sustained during the Great War, and secondly, from the effects of loneliness, the death of his father and aunt, and criticism at different periods of his life. It is hardly unusual that an artist is unaffected by the surrounding world; indeed, this milieu determines any artist’s work, as it did for Myaskovsky through three revolutions, two world wars, and a civil war. It is not surprising that Myaskovsky would be intensely pessimistic and depressed, yet he never would have had led such a hugely influential career if he had not found within himself the ability to overcome his doubts and produce works of outstanding quality. Without self-criticism, he would never have written such a huge amount of work in diverse genres, notably in the most complex philosophical concepts of the piano sonata, string quartet and symphony.
To his great credit, Zuk has produced a major work on Myaskovsky following his life through all the aspects of his formative life, his journalism, teaching, advisory work and composing. However, a serious flaw is his failure to comprehend the relationship with Prokofiev; Zuk portrays the relationship as one-sided. Yet, in letters, memoirs and diaries there are many examples of the warmth of the relations between Prokofiev and Myaskovsky. Certainly, it was a complex relationship, but it seems that Zuk doesn’t know how to deal with the fluctuations of a friendship which lasted almost half a century. Unsurprisingly, Sergei Prokofiev Jnr declined to give access to his archives. However, the author has been prodigious in his extensive research, travelling to Myaskovsky’s birthplace and to the sites of the battles that he took part in during the Great War; furthermore, he has discussed the composer’s life with members of the Myaskovsky family and those surviving friends who remember his last years.
Throughout the almost 500 pages of text, Zuk provides much subjective material which diverts the reader from the main narrative, and there are inconsistencies in the spelling of Russian names. Zuk is no wordsmith and often his writing is like a collection of lectures and rarely engages. On p. 219, Zuk says that the Association of Contemporary Music was founded in 1923; however it was actually established in 1919. Stalin’s deputy Kirov is called ‘charismatic’ - a most bizarre description. Zuk makes claims of the infrequency of performance, yet Myaskovsky’s music was more popular than Shostakovich’s in the 1920s and 1930s in both America and the USSR.
Throughout, Zuk speaks about the poor musical performances; this seems difficult to believe for there were fine orchestras, especially at the Bolshoi Theatre, and the Leningrad Philharmonic, and many visiting western musicians spoke of the high standards. Towards the end he completely misses the symbolist irony of the text for the 1947 cantata Kremlin at Night that depicts the eeriness of the Kremlin gates opening deep in the night and the warning to Stalin from an old woman; this ironic text caused the work to be banned in 1948. Finally, it is bewildering that on page 429, Zuk attributes Myaskovsky with only ‘a high level of technical competence’, and is reluctant to credit his compositions with any great importance.
There is a full bibliography and an index, but regrettably there is no complete discography.
It is welcome that a major publisher has taken up a biography on Myaskovsky and their high production standards are maintained in printing, high quality photographs, in reprinting numerous musical texts, and maps, all of which present the reader with an attractively copious volume on this neglected composer. I have been familiar with Myaskovsky for more than half a century through long sought-after rare recordings, and even rarer concert performances; I find it encouraging that at last more information is becoming available to the musical public. Whilst he endured a difficult life, despite the immense travails that barred his course, to the last, he composed what he wanted and can be credited with immense achievements, teaching a school of composers and leaving a huge legacy of work that still needs discovery on the concert platform. As Shostakovich wrote of him, Myaskovsky belongs among the greats of 20th-century music: Bartók, Berg, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. With the appearance of this new biography, it is to be hoped that this will lead to greater interest in his music.