The music of Nikolai Miaskovski

by renowned Miaskovski expert, Eric Schissel.

Nikolai Yakovlevich Miaskovski (1881-1950) wrote 27 symphonies, 13 quartets, 9 piano sonatas, 2 sonatas for violoncello and piano, 2 concerti, and a good deal of "miscellaneous" piano music , 2 cantatas, and songs as well as some titled works for orchestra (Lyric Fragment, Alastor...). For a long time he was regarded as among the three most important composers in the Soviet Union, the other two being his friend Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. His teachers included Reinhold Gliere, and of his students perhaps the three most famous are Dmitri Kabalevsky, Aram Khatchaturian, and Rodion Shchedrin. His own music is undergoing a slow revival, as illustrated perhaps by the fact that, of composers who have written more than 10 symphonies, he is among the relative few who can boast that only six cannot now be had in some kind of recording. (Of course, the others include Mozart, Haydn, Shostakovich, and Langgaard, and there are others still, but not many.)
(You can View a complete list of Miaskovski works by opus number here)

To the inevitable question, Is his music Any Good?, one is forced to give a short answer and a long answer.

Short Answer: the best of his works are of lasting quality and emotional force.

Long Answer: I first encountered Miaskovski's music by a radio broadcast, around 1987 or '88, of his concerto for violoncello and orchestra. (It was probably a broadcast of one of Rostropovich's 2 recordings of the work, among Miaskovski's most recorded and definitely his most broadcast!) The work impressed me at first hearing, as did scores of his that I found when browsing the university's open-stack library, recordings of his quartets on old Melodiya LPs also at the library, and symphonies of his on LP also there and twice (syms. 17 & 21) on the radio. It was always a mixed pleasure, because some moments might seem wonderful but a lot was (or seemed) workaday. Recordings of his piano sonatas the library was getting on CD did not dispel this mixed judgment, though there some works were quite superior to others. Sonatas 2&4, for instance, appealed more than the more conventional- seeming no. 1.

A CD purchase some years later of his symphony no. 3 (after I'd already added to my library more readily-available works as syms. 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12) revealed a masterpiece. The library - I was years gone from the University by then and so limited in my use of it - copy of this symphony had only been skimmed by me, i.e. I'd only listened to the opening of the first movement, and to the opening and ending of the second movement, as I recall. (For similar reasons I .still. have only heard two movements of his symphony no. 16, which has 4 movements in all.) The hint the skimming had given me of a wilderness of a symphony decided me to purchase a sale copy during a 1-week visit to London, but did not prepare me for the pitiless tread of the symphony's closing funeral march, perhaps the best 6 minutes in all the composer's works.



Where is Miaskovski's place in the musical landscape of his time, what the nearest analogy for his relations to other composers and the particular qualities of his works? If one composer is the 20th- century Haydn (Persichetti), another our Schubert (Messiaen), yet another our (post-1921) Saint-Saens (Gordon Jacob) one might do worse than to call Miaskovski the Schumann of this century. He, too, is perhaps the great composer who became merely good (to quote Liszt on .the. Schumann). He, too, wrote an appreciation of a Brahms (of the "Russian Brahms", Medtner). His works show much the same tendency to go canonic with scant excuse, the same occasional awkwardness of development, even the same return to the piano sonata medium as the end neared with a few simple works for (relatively) beginning pianists. A particular similarity might be called his apparent compulsory cyclicism, the recall in many of his works' finales of material from earlier movements, though here perhaps Miaskovski is even closer to Liszt.

Inversely there is apparently little of a "late Liszt" quality to late Miaskovski as there is, say, to late Scriabin or late Ciurilionis (I am told). The trend followed instead by Miaskovski- whether because of political threat and terror or inclination or both- has much in common with the late turn to Classicism of (some) Brahms, Schumann, Saint-Saens, Brian, and others. (I am of the opinion that the late works of Beethoven partake of both "trends", but more on that some other time.) In Miaskovski's case this sometimes meant a return to something like the style of his very earliest works, but a late work like symphony 25 is noticeably different from a representative early work like piano sonata "number 1". As to how, I find it difficult to pinpoint and cannot say at this time.


Most of the symphonies (12 of them) have 3 movements, nine have four, one has five, three have one and two have two. (Since I know little about symphony no. 20, it might belong in the 3-movements list and not, as I have assumed, with the 4-movt. works.) In most of the symphonies the first movement is a sonata-form of more-or-less "standard" design, though sometimes with first and second subject reversed in the recapitulation, and finales tend to be rondos or sonata-forms. Sym. 11's finale is an introduction, theme and variations, though, and the second of the two movements of sym. 3 juxtaposes a complex rondo (or is it a sonata-form with the first- subject recapitulation early, like Brahms 1's finale?) with a funeral march and coda. The two movements of symphony no. 7 are at present too difficult for me to classify, and there are other exceptions. Several of the first movements, for example, are ABA, and so are most of the slow movements, about which more later.

In some of his four-movement works a pair of movements will be each substantially longer than the other pair (string quartet 1 and symphony no. 6 stand out here.)


There are perhaps few identifiable quotations in Miaskovski works. The chant Dies Irae, naturally, occurs in some works, such as symphony no. 6 and piano sonata "no. 2". Symphony 6 also quotes 2 songs f from the French Revolution. The variations in symph. 11 may be based on a folk- tune (more on that anon). Symphony 23 .is. based on folk-tunes, Kabardinian ones. The scherzo and slow movt. of sym. 8 are, according to the composer, based on folktunes in large part as well. Finally, the variations that conclude string quartet "3" are on Grieg's "Cradle Song".

Also interesting are self-quotations: here is the briefest list.

1) the opening of piano sonata "no. 2" is much like the fugue theme of sonata "no. 1".
2) the scherzo of string quartet "no. 1" shares motives with the first movement of symphony 11.
3) though chronology here cannot be decided, finales of the piano sonatas "no. 4" and "no. 6" open in an extremely similar manner, the second "burst" (not a tune) of the latter providing the main theme of the former.

(I am sure, however, that the on-paper similarity between the main slow movement themes of sym. 11 and Sibelius' sym. 1 is coincidence. But enough.)


Miaskovski does not restrict himself, when recalling material from one movement of a piece in another movement, to bringing back the first movement's main theme as the climax of the finale (no doubt to be imagined stereotypically with cymbals and drum-rolls, cannons and chorus, which he does not do at all). Most examples of what he does do instead will be described by me when describing the pieces in which he does them. (The closest he gets to the stereotype is perhaps the recall in sym. 22's finale of its opening movement's main theme, now in major.) Syms. 24&25 are fair examples of his more standard, subtler, practice. The maze of recalls in his sym. 9 deserves some lengthy exposition now.

1. the main theme of the second movement is first heard at two important junctures in the "B" section of the first movement.
2. an important brass transition motive from the first movement is heard again in the third movement, but as background and no longer as foreground. It reappears in the finale, as foreground.
3. the finale's central rondo-episode recalls at least three themes from the first two movements, including, indeed, the opening of the symphony (though not the plangent tune about 1'15 into the work).
( 2. and 3. are pointed out in Ikonnikov's book mentioned below.)


I have mentioned the early irresistability of canon (and fugue) to Miaskovski, which was the basis of perhaps among the only real contemporary criticism of his earliest works (such as, according to Ikonnikov, sym. 2). Relatively few works of his, I think, have strictly fugal sections (among them, though, are piano sonatas "1" and "2", sym. 7, and sym. 13) outside of the central sections of slow movements where he did tend to use fugue more often. But counterpoint, understood as the presence of substantial stretches in which several (more than 2) voices carry melodically important material, is almost as important to his work as it is to the very different late music of Havergal Brian (which are .continually. contrapuntal in a way perhaps not seen since the Renaissance, by the way). This is especially true, in Miaskovski's case, of earlier works, especially syms. 5-13 and perhaps sym. 3.


Briefly, .very. approximately, one might regard the music up to the end of Miaskovski's service in WWI as "first period", critically not including however sym. 4; the works approximately between symphonies 4 and 13 inclusive, as "second period"; everything else as "third" (though this, too, would need to be further subdivided). Symphony no. 12 is a weird exception to the "second period" but exceptions are to be expected.

1st period : emotionally depressing (often extremely so), some influence from Tschaikovski, the Kuchka, and Scriabin mostly redounding to the benefit of the works so influenced (I have my doubts about some). Often quite dissonant, but no real evidence yet of contact with Impressionism. Even the chromatic rumbling that opens sym. 3 is soon joined by a truly imperious horn? call perhaps inspired by Scriabin (mid-period) and tonally firm.

2nd period : Bitonality, more dissonance, strange endings. Generally a slight reduction in emotional immediacy and impact (with exceptions here too, string quartet "1" especially) and increase in sarcasm and distance to some extent (though generally Miaskovski is always the opposite of Fauvist in whatever work). Influence of Impressionism evident in sym. 7, of Expressionism in sym. 10. Piano sonata "no. 4" suggest Bartok and Debussy, especially at the opening, and Prokofiev in other places, but is quite original all the same, like most to all of the works of this period. Quartet "no. 1" and sym. 10 come closest perhaps to contemporary (i.e. contemporary to 1930) modernism.

3rd period : Strong 19th-Century Russian influence, but more fully absorbed than in 1st period. Some emotional neutrality (relative to the other periods!) - there are depths of depression his work no longer approaches - and more emphasis on craftsmanship. (The development section of the first movt. of symphony no. 24, for instance, is one of those development sections that really does do what such sections are supposed to do, i.e. shine new light on the material.) Except perhaps for sym. 19 (and not all of that) the music is still personal, often touching, and memorable. As well, the music can rarely be mistaken for 19th-century music, but there is nothing in Miaskovski's 3rd period like the extremely loud and dissonant chord preceding the final low C# of symphony no. 2, much less the aggressive anger, avoidance of consonance, and rapid changes of mood of the 2nd period. The music doesn't deserve the put-down Miaskovski's 3rd period music has often received, but if one still wants to argue as I do that some fundamental continuities exist with earlier and more obviously potent and strange works by the composer, at least a cosmetic change and "softening" must nevertheless be admitted. There are audible differences. (Again, whether merely by political fiat or also by composer's personal desire seems conjecture.)

7.Slow movements.

Some common features of certain Miaskovski slow movements can quickly be listed:

1) mysterious, bleak or threatening introductions in which key is slowly established. (sym. 2, sym. 5, sym. 6, sym. 11, sym. 24, piano sonata "1".)
2) purposeful canonic central sections (sym. 5, sym. 22 esp.; sym.11.)
3) A-sections that present folktune-like material over shifting accompaniment without much counterpoint. (sym. 8, sym. 9, sym. 23, quartets "1" & 5.)
4) berceuse or lullaby material (sym. 5, sym. 7, piano sonata "4".)
5) funeral march (sym. 16, sym. 22 sort of, sym. 3 (finale, not slow movt.)
6) faster central section (sym. 2, sym. 27.)
7) more "typical" Romantic slow movement (sym. 4?, sym. 6, sym. 24 to some extent, sym. 27, quartet "4", perhaps quartet 13.)
Sym. 6 can't be included under 7) without some qualification, however.

This "classification" is incomplete. Moreover, some of the 3-movement symphonies are slow/scherzo-or-intermezzo/fast (sym. 12, sym. 25); sym. 12's opening slow movement is a sort of ABA with faster B, and sym. 25's opening slow movement seems to be a version of the alternating variations of Haydn/Beethoven/Bruckner, or perhaps is "merely" a Rondo (since it has the alternation of major- and minor- mode typical musics, but not the variation quality at each reappearance).

To finish this partial inventory, in 4-movement symphonies (aside from the unknown-to-me no. 20) the scherzo is

the 2nd movt. of: syms. 6,8,9,16,19.
the 3rd movt. of: syms. 5,15,17.

While each of the composer's 27 symphonies, 13 string quartets and 9 piano sonatas (as well as the cello sonatas and the concerti) deserves careful consideration in itself, my ability to consider them here is limited by lack of space and, in some cases, lack of knowledge. Very few people have heard symphonies 2 and 4; I have given symphony 2 an unusually thorough skim, but not symphony no. 4, for instance. My opinion of symphony no. 6, most Miaskovski fans' choice for his masterwork, is no doubt lowered by the poor quality of the one recording I have of it. Knowledge is further limited by the unavailability from its original publisher of the complete edition of Miaskovski's works, though this may be seen at some university libraries, and some public libraries too have an unusually large collection of his scores (I think Boston's has all 27 of his symphonies, but I have not been there recently); and the fact that some symphonies seem available here only in piano score (though again the full score may be available at some location that I have not been able to access as yet). What follows is an unliterary, perhaps somewhat pedantic description of what I .do. know of each of the symphonies and piano sonatas.

8. Symphonies

sym. 1 in c minor, op. 3. this is available on a CD which I have not yet heard (label Russian Disc), and also allegedly (in a different performance) on an Olympia CD not available in the U.S. (coupled with syms. 15 && 21.) . A brief skim of the score together with information gleaned from reviews of the Russian Disc CD reveals that it is in 3 movements (according to Ikonnikov, the middle movt. is in A-flat major; the outer movements are both in and end in c minor) with the memorable Miaskovski pall of dread most to be felt in the first movement, apparently agreed to be the most impressive of the three.

sym. 2 in c# minor, op. 11. a sequential opening tune of memorable rhythm opens a sonata-form well-described as Tschaikovskian by Ikonnikov, beginning and ending in c# minor. The a minor second movement opens uncertainly with a c-c# semitone before its main matter, described by the same writer as Scriabin-influenced. The central section of this slow movement contains a quite fast page. The last pages of the slow movement are sparely orchestrated in the extreme. They turn to A major, and in what is perhaps a sort of bow to Scriabin's 3rd piano sonata, a transposition of the main theme of the 3rd movement picks up speed and introduces the 3rd movement- which Ikonnikov describes as Miaskovskian. The main theme is extremely angular. The ending leaps off the page- a chord with c# minor submerged in several leading tones and tritones played loudly and tremolo for several bars, then an .emphatic. low c#.

sym. 3 in a minor, op. 15. this work was written around the time of Scriabin's (and then S. Taneev's) death, and shows signs of Scriabin's influence very positively. As mentioned, the first movement (in a minor, lasting about 20 minutes) opens with dark rumblings to which are soon joined a grand (and motivically important) horncall (whether or not actually taken by horn). The call's first entrance is in E-flat, though we are soon pulled to a minor, and a fast-tempo sonata form on three main themes. The first, convulsive theme, which starts with two groups of three notes each, continues extremely chromatically (almost atonally) and leads to a loud full-orchestra statement of a theme from the introduction (not mentioned above, but also very important, and going something like A C# Cnat. G Bflat... quite majestically, threateningly, and emphatically). After things calm down a tad, the second theme, based on the opening horncall, is quietly articulated.

A third theme, in D-flat, follows, and the rest of the sonata form follows fairly normally, though the last few minutes are quiet A- major, not quite untroubled but peaceful.

The second movement's opening is loud and stentorian. Fast development of it leads to the rondo's main theme, which shares the one problem besetting most of the fast portions of this symphony- a tune once heard is repeated immediately and often without change. It's a fine theme, though, and malleable. The second theme, in (I think) e minor, follows; it is more clearly dancelike. A passage follows in which a slowed-down and changed version of the first movement's main theme serves as an ominous bass. (Actually this is better considered a theme in itself than a variant of the first movement's main theme, since a slowed-down version .unchanged. of that theme is important later.) The music slows, and a central episode of generally ominous character ends with the main theme of the finale in a slow unison, followed by a repeat of the opening of the movement, the main rondo theme and the second theme. Eventually in slow tempo the main theme of the first movement is played, and the funeral march begins (16 minutes into the 25-minute movement). This is ABA, gaining force as it proceeds from opening quiet string statement, containing a recall of the movement's second theme, followed by a middle section which concludes with the movement's main theme in a slow and painful crescendo to land on the funeral march theme played powerfully and hieratically by winds and strings, a moment which really has made an appearance in one of the worse of my dreams. The coda to the funeral march follows its sad climax with quiet mutterings, a cello cadenza of sorts, and several bars of dissonant a minor (with added f) under which e-f#-g#-a (a part of the refrain of the march) is played several times, then the chord is dropped and the bass instruments provide two final as.

symphony no. 4 in e, op. 17. anyone who knows sym. 27 (available once on LP and sometimes on CD) will be at home in this work formally. The similarities are several: the main movement preceded by a gloomy introduction, the slow movement in the mediant major, the finale seeming to begin in the mediant minor before settling in tonic minor and finally ending in tonic major. The harmonic language is much sharper in this work, however. The introduction is memorable with its melody in steps (E-F# F#-G...) and the finale opens on a G# drumroll, and that's about all i remember from skimming the score once.

symphony no. 5 in D major, op. 18. the quiet opening exposes a clarinet theme suggesting a lithe dance over supportive accompaniment. it finds its own way, gaining then losing intensity, until a fragmented and much-interrupted version of the minor-mode second theme enters. It gains force and one hears the second theme in full and at once. This theme also ends the development, and is followed by the opening theme, quiet again, and a peaceful coda interrupted several times by an e-flat minor chord before disappearing in D. The slow movement is ABA, where A is a haunting b-flat minor lullaby or berceuse, suggestive to some of better film music in sheer atmosphere, and the central section is severely contrapuntal. The scherzo is light, in g minor but utterly unlike Spohr or Mozart g minor (more like Mendelssohn's in his octet). The finale is a sonata-form in D major whose second theme also recalls film music not yet written in its tread, and which at the very end climaxes in another return to the first movement's second theme, sadly majestic, followed by a brief coda in the same mood but ending in major.

symphony no. 6 in e-flat minor, op. 23. some people say this is Miaskovski's masterpiece; I don't know where it fits with me. It's his longest symphony, and his only one to use the human voice. 4 movements comprise a 22-or-so minute first movement, a scherzo, a slow movement in B whose main theme is from the first movement, and a major-mode and eventful finale which times in at about 17 minutes. The briefest of intempo introductions in the first movement leads to the highly chromatic main theme, though its continuation keeps shouting It's the Flintstones at me. Go figure. I would suggest that my problem with this symphony is that its themes do not, until the finale, attach themselves to my memory or strike me as particularly original, compared to those in other works by the composer. Further, its weight and length have put off repeated listenings (but this is true also of symphony no. 3).

sym 7. This two-movement work is hard to get a mental hold of and, accordingly, I am putting off describing it for a while. Consider this section in progress.

sym. 8. a lovely folklike (or folk?) tune in f# minor and a motive of some importance precede a sonata-allegro tangentially in A, with some of the melodic style of Borodin in the first group and another folkish tune as the second group. The movement concludes with the opening folktune, a Picardy 3rd of F# major, and a final f# minor chord. Dissonance like the opening of symphony no. 6 opens the scherzo which then proceeds with a catchy tune in D; Ikonnikov claims that only this tune in the movement is of the composer's own invention, and even it is from student notebooks of his. The scherzo is ABA. The slow movement is ABA also, but its near uneventfulness makes it a hard nut to crack. The finale is a wonderful rondo which gets extremely tense near the end, ending on an augmented chord.

Symphony no. 9 in e minor, op. 28. The first movement opens with loud, dissonant chords in typically Miaskovskian rhythm creating an atmosphere of inclarity and gloom (though not so much so as the openings of syms. 3 & 7, which ululate in a way not found here). Every single chord, except for some unisons, is a dissonance until the e minor that quietly "announces" the second theme of this portion of the movement (moderato malinconico, and well-named). A haunting melody in narrative or "bardic" style is heard and developed in counterpoint with variations of the top line of the opening chords of the movement. A triplet-figure in brass is "transitional". The center of the movement is a quiet melody in C with regular tonal slips to A-flat, making way occasionally for foretastes of the second movement's main theme before returning to its usual demeanor. The opening chords return, as does the second theme which also, after the transitional triplets, closes the movement in resigned angry/sad melancholy. The second movement is often rather "lighter" in spirit. It opens in an extremely disorienting fashion before the main theme of this g# minor sonata form is "exposited"- it is the triadic figure heard during the center of the first movement. The second subject is a carol-like theme with a catchy rhythm and much nonchalance. (And, also, much use of triangles.) The rest of the movement is "as expected" but the coda is grim and angry in a way that the glimmers of sarcasm earlier in the movement do not prepare one for. That the last chord is A-flat major unclear on the only present recording of the work.

sym. 10. essentially an extremely chromatic introduction followed by a very, very angry sonata form (anyhow the outlines of the form are discernible).

sym. 11. this piece shares some of the ferocity of sym. 10 with some of the settled classicism of syms. 9 and 12. The first movement has an introduction of notably nasty demeanor followed by a sonata- form both whose themes reappear in the scherzo of the first string quartet, albeit in varied guise. These themes- the first is more a motif- are fairly notable in themselves. A hint of the introduction precedes the close of the movement in stentorian B-flat major.

Further on the first movement: the opening and the closing bars (except for the harsh B-flat octave that closes the movement) are the same music a tritone apart (so in E at the opening); the music then continues with a chromatic melody foreshadowing music to come. In the sonata-argument that follows, I would mention some details: the appearances of the second theme in the development on horns are sonore, and at the last, pav. en l'air (bells to the side, I think); a recurring passage of two-note figures first pizz. then arco, alternating with the first theme, is notable; the penultimate pages of the movement are Scriabinesque in their opulent orchestration and spirit (Holst's least characteristic and best known work, the Planets, is a noticeable influence). For all this talk of particular events and influences I should perhaps make extremely clear that I love this movement. An uncertain-sounding prelude holds the gate for the E-flat major slow movement, whose main theme would, were it not for a different harmonization and tempo, remind people of the 2nd movement of Sibelius' 1st symphony. The central section of this movement is a wind fugato on a melody whose first half is the main theme of the first movement, and whose second half is the characteristic cadence of the finale.

This finale is a set of variations on a theme not much different from the tune of Dvorak's Symphonic Variations, plus the cadential hook just mentioned. Since the Dvorak has been referred to as being based on a folk theme, this might not be simple plagiarism. Again an introduction leads into the main matter and recurs towards the end. The movement is mostly in B-flat major, but one Borodin-like variation is in B minor, and there are other surprises. The ending is indeed rather start-stop in its progress, finally coming to a close with a page of fast music of uncertainty landing on a B-flat major chord. Then bass instruments combine in a unison of grace notes, Gflat Eflat Dflat Cflat, before the last thudding B-flat for low strings, percussion and wind.

The 11th symphony is dedicated to Maximilian Steinberg (I think- my memory also suggests I might have read Sternberg), Shostakovich's teacher and Rimsky-Korsakov's pupil. It is perhaps the most "French" of his works, though there is a strong Russian folk-music element to the melodies here as in any of his symphonies. (The publisher, I believe, was a famous Paris one, also.)

sym. 12 (my second-least-favorite, but I will attempt to be fair). This symphony (g minor, op. 35) has the subtitle "Collective Farm". The opening slow movement is ABCDCBA, with D in a faster tempo, and a remarkable if Borodinesque transition separating the first C and D. A is a clarinet solo, which is varied in B. C is a slow and dignified melody which is very memorable, based in low strings in unison with low wind but in counterpoint with other instruments; the tempo is slower here. D is the first major-mode music in the piece and is quite a dance, switching keys very often. The music returns in basically the same guise as it entered, though differently- orchestrated; a slightly off cadence concludes in g minor. A brass call opens the second movement, a sort of scherzo in c minor, but the opening is in D/d. Order is restored with a fugue theme, and the second subject, in d, is strangely simple like the 2nd subject of the second movement of sym. 9 (but more so). The movement concludes with the brass call in C major.

The finale (the composer's least favorite movement here, and my favorite of the three) is in G, but opens in F major. Not to worry, order is soon restored here too, and the main theme is in G. The second theme is, I think, con elevazione in the score and really is in sound; it is heard in B. A central episode recalls several themes of preceding movements; in one sub-episode dissonant chords suggesting f minor are heard, followed by a pause and the "C" theme from the first movement in e minor. After the return of the elevated melody and what follows it, the passage which just preceded the end of the second movement is heard again but this time, instead of stopping, is deflected strangely. A review once suggested that the coda to this symphony is like the manic coda of several Shostakovich works but without quite as high dissonance; that assessment seems about right.

What I cannot avoid is an assessment that this work is something of a diluted version of symphony no. 9, with which it has very, very much in common. The first movement of no. 9 differs primarily in that its opening A is extremely dissonant without cease, it does not have a "B" (or its B is .after. its C...), its C is rather more sadly lyrical, and its D is more of the same, in a way, but in major-mode and not faster. The second movement of sym. 9 is wilder and its weirdly simple second theme not as simple as that of sym. 12; also, the end of this movement in sym. 9 is near-tragic. Sym. 9 has a nocturne no equivalent of which is in sym. 12, though the opening movement of sym. 12's main theme has more in common with this nocturne than with sym. 9's opening movement. Finally, finales of the two works have similarities, though no really elevated spirit lifts that of symphony no. 9, and when on its last page the cutesypoo second theme is heard in a severe case of elephantiasis, I at least break out in a cold sweat.

sym. 13. It has been described as being nearly as bleak as Sibelius' 4th symphony. It has little in common with symphony no. 12 (I do not know symphony no. 14 but from what I know about it, symphony no. 13 also has little in common with it). It is in a single movement, with slow introduction (and prominent drum tattoo), main theme, D-flat major second theme, development leading to a b-natural-minor fugato, and recapitulation and coda, finally ending on a b-flat minor chord with added notes a and c, the drum tattoo accompanying the final chord.

symphony no. 15 in d minor, op. 38 (i think). In many ways, a typical Miaskovski symphony.In the first movement, a growling brief introduction leads to a compact sonata form whose first subject has an instantly- recognizable rhythmic bounce. It is articulated over a storm of rapid string figurations which recur and metamorphose throughout the movement. A narrow (i.e. based largely on semitones) transitional theme leads to an at first equally narrow second subject, which soon blossoms out in lovely counterpoint. The development basically surrounds a recall of the main theme with various versions of the transition theme, in one early case spit out uninhibited by brass (a touch reminiscent of sym. 11 and perhaps of Scriabin). As often in Miaskovski, the development ends with a gigantic, crescendo swell and a pileup that might remind people of a particularly messy traffic accident. (Sorry...)

The recapitulation is irregular in that the transition theme is not present, and the coda is brief and powerful.

The slow movement (in b minor) is not quite as depressed as, say, the slow movement of sym. 5, but it's not cheerful either. The similarities of this work to sym. 11 do not extend to the waltz that sym. 15 has and sym. 11 lacks; sym. 15 has a 3rd movement, g minor, "con garbo" (elegantly). The finale opens with a striking wind-only fanfare which introduces a quite brief movement beginning in d minor but ending in major, about which I shall have more to say after I am further acquainted with it.

sym. 17. described by one writer as perhaps this composer's best work, by another as most definitely his worst symphony, symphony no. 17 by itself would seem unlikely to cause such strong feelings: a sonata-allegro (g# minor) with a melancholy first theme, a slow movement in E, a scherzo (c minor) that is very Russian, and a finale (A-flat) starting in an interesting 2-part texture (like the opening of Mozart sym. 14 or Miaskovski's later sym. 23) don't really amount to much Miaskovski-wise.

sym. 18. in Ikonnikov's study a story attaches to this one. Apparently a farmer heard this work on the radio and praised it in a letter to a professor with whom he had been keeping a correspondence (I will reread the relevant section of Ikonnikov's book to see if I have that right); the professor then wrote of the farmer's good opinion to Miaskovski. This symphony in 3 movements (op. 42, in C) dances. The first movement has a recurring first theme, in whose reappearances in various keys the tendency for the third to be in the base and the 1-rest-2-rest-3 rhythm tends to be constant. The second movement is a theme and variations (opening slowly but the 1st variation "andante narrante") in a minor, ending A major (the C# in horn a few bars before it ends). The finale opens with figuration in the violins soon joined by a bassoon melody.

sym. 22. "symphony-ballade" in b minor, op. 54. the two recordings of this that I know of are a commercial recording, available on CD and conducted by Svetlanov, and a private open-reel made in 1990 and conducted by Rozhdestvensky (sp?). This work seems best seen in 3 movements with, as usual, Miaskovski's compulsive cyclicities, though there are no breaks between the movements and it is sometimes seen as a 1-movement work.

The first movement begins with an introduction which establishes a pace and sets up key oppositions of major thirds (by cadencing on a G major chord from the opening b minor, and then by modulating to e-flat minor). We slowly gain tempo and enter a fast 3-subject sonata-form in b minor whose first and third themes, at least, are sharply characterized and haunting. The third theme has more than a passing resemblance to, without being the same as, the repeated refrain of the slow movement which follows the end of the sonata-form (whose recapitulation starts at the introduction) and a recall of the introduction. This slow movement is in b-flat minor, tripartite, with extremely mournful music framing a stern fugato like a difficult climb. The finale, though it too begins in minor, is fairly optimistic. Its subsidiary themes and main theme are far less retiring than in the opening movement. The coda intensifies its recall of the introduction and, for sentimental people like me, the final two recalls (one in minor, one in major) of the main fast theme of the first movement bring tears to the eyes, as does the transformation of the finale's second theme that, with heavy drum rolls, ends the work in B major. (Seeing this ending on the page- my second encounter with Miaskovski's music after hearing his cello concerto- gave me an unduly bombastic impression of the work and, by extension, of all his works, which only began to change when I heard his 21st symphony on the radio, and its pizzicato-inflected minor-mode ending which informed me that, yes, here was a composer who was willing to end in minor, at least occasionally. Sort of like hearing Bruckner's 1st symphony and then his 8th, and concluding from the 8th that the composer was, at least occasionally, willing to give his finales sufficient scope...)

sym. 23. This is a symphony "on Kabardinian themes" much as Prokofiev's 2nd string quartet is a quartet on them, and for much the same reason. It is in 3 movements, is in a minor, has the opus number 56, and has been recorded and made available on LP. The first movement opens with a melody in two halves repeated in varying instrumentations several times in slow tempo. Fast tempo brings a new theme in e minor. Development ranges widely among keys, as one might expect. Finally slow tempo is regained as is a minor. The c# minor slow movement seems somewhat similar. The finale, in A major but curious in that the key signature is 2 sharps whenever the main theme (an Islamey) plays, and whose subsidiary group lacks one flat from its expected signature, ends happily.

sym. 24. I was surprised to learn from The Melodiya Discography that of the symphonies 24&25, a disk of which was promoted as the first recording of one and the first CD recording of the other (without saying which was which), it is symphony no. 25, not this symphony, which had been available on LP and this symphony which received its first recording in any format on the CD in question. After all, no. 24 is the more obviously dramatic, is in minor while 25 is in major (a point of "preference" in itself- doesn't Mozart's early g minor symphony do better than most of its contemporary major- mode works?), and has a clearer emotional trajectory in its way. But further acquaintance has led me to the belief that this piece is actually pretty weird. The first movement opens with a (quite good) fanfare that subsides to reveal the main theme of the movement, a somewhat palindromic tune in low strings accompanied by a prominent repeated F in timpani. This group develops at some length before the less striking second theme appears; this tune is less striking, but beautiful, and if one's concentration has lapsed by this point, well, it's one's own loss. As with many such moments, it can pass by unnoticed and is quite brief: the minor-mode, quite canonic 3rd theme (in F, it begins C Aflat.. Bflat C F with Bflat and C quite fast) strikes in on the scene. It is as much a motto for this symphony as anything.

The development is somewhat eventful, and as I believe I have mentioned, it does what a development should and rarely .does. do in a sonata cycle: it takes a theme and rethinks it, like shining light at a different angle. The quiet and somewhat featureless opening to the main theme (F...G Aflat G Aflat Bflat Aflat G Aflat ..G F) which has heretofore only been heard quietly in low strings is now played in a rhythmic variant obstreperously in high strings. (Those with a taste for subtle takes on standard techniques owe it to themselves to hear this symphony.) The recapitulation is not entirely standard, and the end of the movement introduces a motif, Aflat.... Gflat F (harmonized somewhat strangely) that is in itself depressing and is also a cyclic element. Note that the recapitulation began with a version of the opening fanfare, which also figures in the development, so one could take me to task for not regarding it as part of the opening theme group.

The second movement opens in a quiet of fragmentary gestures, sometimes in Bflat minor and sometimes in F minor; it is one minute before we hear chords announcing what will seem the main key of the movement, D-flat major, repeated in strings while melody continues in winds. The form of this movement is elusively solid, in that if one ignores that first minute it seems to have ABA form, I think, but it may not be accurate to think of that first minute as merely a motive-generating introduction. Whatever- suffice it to say that this slow movement has quite a bit of rather sad music, including one string melody which turns out to be almost the same as the main motive of the whole movement with one note divided into two. At present I can say no more, for this piece, though .quite. enjoyable- it does not sound particularly unusual moment- to-moment- leaves me at the post formally. An important element in this movement is the use, towards the end, of the 3rd theme of the first movement.

The last movement opens with another, more urgent fanfare, followed by swirling strings that could perhaps be mistaken for the opening of the finale of sym. 8 except for the more conventional harmony and sense of direction, followed by a f minor sonata form whose main theme has a lot of wind triplets in its later development. The second theme is wonderful. Cyclicities in this movement seem limited to a quiet recall towards the end of the movement of the third theme of the first, and towards the very end, several times, the Aflat... G-F is heard; but an F major end has by then become fairly certain. The scoring of the last F major chord has a delicacy not often attributed to this composer's orchestration.

Symphony no. 25, in D-flat major, op. 69. The conductor in both recordings of this work is Evgeni Svetlanov, though I believe them to be different recordings. The work is in 3 movements. The first movement is slow throughout and alternates sections in D-flat major, with two main themes, and in c-sharp minor. This ends in c# minor fairly quietly. An intermezzo in moderate tempo and f minor sneaks quietly in on viola; this movement seems noticeable for the not-quite-coordination of its contrapuntal lines, a beautiful middle section, and the still-moderate-tempo but louder sadness of the truncated return of the opening; the movement ends in major. The fast finale is a sonata-form in c# minor, whose main theme enters after some preparatory in-tempo bars of triplets. Its development section is substantial, and comes to a full stop before the main theme returns (without the preparatory section); this movement ends quietly in Dflat major after a fairly restrained but still triumphal last burst of loud pleasure (unexpected because preceded by a quiet which could have been the end of the movement). The second theme of the main section of the first movement appears as a cyclic element in the finale.

Symphony no. 26, in C major, "Russian". This has yet to be available in a recording, though Svetlanov claims to have recorded all 27 symphonies hence presumably this one as well. It has been called "thin". Fair enough- from the two piano score it is clear enough that some bars in the middles of movements are single whole notes, which thinness of texture few classical composers have had the gumption to use since Beethoven (violin sonata no. 9, 1st movt., for instance). The first movement is a sonata form in C major with a slow introduction, the slow movement is in F, and the finale, though its opening seems to be making a feint at opening in a, is in C. An idiosyncrasy of this work is that the first movement ends in c .minor., a parallel with sym. 25 and Rimsky-Korsakov's symphony no. 3 (final version).

9. Piano Sonatas

no. 1 in d minor, op. 6. I will stick to the published numbering much of the time (sometimes calling this no. "1", likewise for string quartets etc.) even though there are numerous reasons to believe that it was hardly the first of Miaskovski's piano sonatas to be written. It is in 4 movements: a fugue, a fast sonata form (somewhat concert-allegro-ish), a slow movement, and a fast finale. (I believe the keys are d/d/F/d, ending dominant of d/D/F/D resp.) The first movement's fugue subject appears in the second and fourth movements.

no. 2 in f# minor, op. 13. This single-movement sonata, one of only two piano sonatas by Miaskovski to end in minor (perhaps three since no. 4 is rather strange),s rather a good piece, if not nearly worthy of the "new Hammerklavier" appellation it was stuck with. A medium-tempo introduction, opening with a theme audibly related to the fugue theme of sonata 1 but in canon, and continuing with what will be the snake-like first theme of the main movement in slow tempo, precedes a three-subject sonata form. The first theme is not obviously more "melodic" than the rapid descending bass that it joins early into the main movement, but the whole passage eventually imprints onto the memory. The second subject is initially somewhat nondescript, but soon solidifies, and in the midst of its ruminations takes a bad turn, marked by a sudden flurry of notes downward and a rhythm-pattern in the bass over which is heard the third subject, the dies irae.

The dies irae is rather amusingly varied in the development, the recapitulation is fairly normal, and the coda starts with a fugue and continues less strictly-contrapuntally in order to end sharply, rhythmically and angrily.

This would be a good work to play in a recital, though difficult. A score can be had at New York's Lincoln Center Public Library, and this is the one Miaskovski work that would perhaps be easiest for a pianist with interest in his music to find. (However, the technically easier, if less sparkling for an audience, late sonatas 7-9 can be read in Cornell U.'s library, if you can get access.) Certainly the best way to get his music played is to play it.

no. 3 in c minor, op. 19. This one's a toughie, and its themes are so similar to each other that, as with sym. 7, further acquaintance seems indicated.

no. 4 in c minor, op. 27. even more so calling for further acquain- tance, though not because of similarity of themes. This work, in its outer movements at least, comes fairly near atonality. (Though the finale has a second theme which is quite tonal and rather "cute" in its alternation of 6 nat. and 6 flat (in Eflat major, C natural and C flat notes).) The first movement is a very large structure for a Miaskovski piano sonata- the only longer movements in Miaskovski sonatas are sonatas themselves (2&3). It is a sonata form, and its coda, like the earlier coda to the first movement of symphony no. 6, is extremely bleak. (And this one is more dissonant, though the piano hasn't the strangely icy string tremolos that are used in the symphony's first movement coda.) (All right, the .unprepared. piano doesn't.)

The second movement is, it is attested in various sources, a sarabande written some years before as a separate piece (no puns please, and I haven't checked this myself). As with the middle movement of the sonatine op. 57, this dance is somewhat restrained compared to the outer movements, but it is by no means peaceful; it is perhaps a film-music sort of sadness (as is suggested by the writer of program notes for a recording of the work- there have been at least three such recordings, by the way).

The third movement is a torrent, opening with much the same music as the second strand of the opening of sonata no. 6's finale (with some rather weird and saddening chords passed through) and continuing with the more obviously melodic second theme mentioned earlier, which tends to fixate on the dominant note and hence fixes a tonality. One writer (the same as just mentioned) notes that, all the same, this movement passes through every single key (if not necessarily all 24 key/mode pairs). With its somewhat brief length it is disorienting overall, and comes to a very full stop in Dflat (minor) followed simply but loudly by G A B C.

piano sonata no. 6 in A-flat major, op. 64 no. 2. this is a revision of a work probably originally dating from Miaskovski's time in Conservatory. It is in three movements. A high-profile and cheery motto theme opens the work (Miaskovski, who rarely does without some kind of slow introduction, forgoes one here) and the first movement sonata-form simultaneously. The slow movement's main theme is uncharacteristically simple in profile- compare, say, the slow movement of the 1st sonata or of Rachmaninov's 1st sonata. Simplicity can be beautiful, and is, here. The finale opens in a disoriented fashion, with two different tornadoes of notes articulating chilling harmonies, before the concluding rondo begins with its main theme identical to that of the finale of Chausson's early g minor piano trio. A very romantic second theme and several varied recalls of the motto of the work are highlights of this finale, as are the returns of those opening chills.

-Eric Schissel

send email to Eric Schissel

View complete list of Miaskovski works by opus number

Return to the Unknown Composers Page