- Nikolay Myaskovsky: The Conscience of Russian Music by Gregor Tassie
When the clouds of war and revolution dispersed over Russia in the early 1920s, it was Nikolay Yakovlevich Myaskovsky (1881– 1950) who emerged as the foremost composer of the new Soviet Union (note: all Russian names and terms in this review are spelled according to the transliterations in Grove Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com [accessed 18 September 2015]). Conductors were eager to program his symphonies, of which there would be twenty-seven in the end, and to spread his fame in Russia and elsewhere. His most ardent champion abroad was Frederick Stock, who introduced twenty of Myaskovsky’s symphonies to Chicago; Stock commissioned and premiered the Twenty-First and turned the performance of the Sixth into an annual event from 1926 to his death in 1942. Some of Stock’s most famous colleagues, including Eugene Ormandy, Serge Koussevitzky, Wilhelm Furt wängler, and especially Hermann Scherchen, also conducted Myaskovsky (pp. 228–29). This is past. Posthumous performances of the enigmatic Muscovite composer’s works have been few and far between. And although a slew of recordings, [End Page 558] including Yevgeny Svetlanov’s cycle of the complete symphonies (Warner Music France 2564 69689-8 , CD), has paved the way for a new assessment of the man and his music over the last thirty years, no new full-length study of Myaskovsky has appeared in print. There have only been some articles (albeit substantial ones), most notably Patrick Zuk’s “Nikolay Myaskovsky and the ‘Regimentation’ of Soviet Composition: A Reassessment” (The Journal of Mu -si cology 31, no. 3 [Summer 2014]: 354–93).
Gregor Tassie’s monograph promises to fill this gap—but it comes with a huge handicap: it ignores the contemporary discourse on Soviet music. Granted, Zuk’s 2014 article was not out yet when Tassie’s book went to press—but could Tassie really pass over Zuk’s 2012 “Nikolay Myaskovsky and the Events of 1948” (Music & Letters 93, no. 1 [February 2012]: 61–85), Marina Frolova-Walker’s “From Modernism to Socialist Realism in Four Years: Myaskovsky and Asafyev” (Muzikologija [2003, no. 3]: 199–217), Richard Taruskin’s admiring review of Svetlanov’s recording of the symphonies, “For Russian Music Mavens, a Fabled Beast Is Bagged” (New York Times, 3 November 2002, A19; reprinted in Taruskin, On Russian Music [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009], 288–93), and anything else published by these authors? Yes, it seems, he could. Neither is there mention of the most significant recent Russian publication on Myaskovsky, Neizvestnïy Nikolay Myaskovsky: Vzglyad iz XXI veka [The Unknown Myaskovsky: A View From the 21st Century], ed. Yelena Dolinskaya (Moscow: Kompozitor, 2006).
Instead, Tassie shared his manuscript with conductors who recently performed Myaskovsky symphonies: Oliver Knussen and Vladimir Jurowski recommend the book on its back cover; Leon Botstein—admittedly also a musicologist, but not a Myaskovsky scholar—contributed a foreword. More important is the fact that Tassie unearthed a wealth of unpublished source material in Russian archives. Alongside published reviews from the Soviet Union, the composer’s diaries and correspondence, minutes from meetings of the Soviet Composers’ Union, and other official documents serve to flesh out the picture, with all sources painstakingly documented in the endnotes.
It is thanks to this new information that as a biography, Tassie’s book works reasonably well. Proceeding roughly in chronological order, the author conjures up a vivid image of the composer and the world he inhabited. Myaskovsky’s military upbringing runs interestingly in parallel with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s; during his belated study at the conservatory he formed a lifelong friendship with the much younger Sergey Prokofiev; his active service in the First World War was an experience unique among major Russian composers. The time between the wars naturally takes center stage, when he was surrounded by a circle of distinguished friends including the composer–musicologist Boris Asaf’yev, the pianist–musicologist Pavel Lamm, and...