Myaskovsky: Symphony No.21

Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950)
Symphony No.21 in F sharp minor, op.51

Posterity is a harsh mistress, as is seen in the case of Myaskovksy, a classmate of Prokofiev and pupil in Rimsky-Korsakov's composition class, who built himself a reputation as the finest symphonist in the Soviet Union before a young upstart called Shostakovich came along and stole his thunder. His 27 symphonies constitute one of the most extensive sequences since the classical era of Haydn and Mozart, and together form the backbone of his career.

After a time in the armed forces, he took a post at the Moscow Conservatory and became a leading light in the promotion of contemporary music in the 1920s, and later became a member of the Organising Committee of the Composers' Union. An introvert by nature, he showed little interest in politica and an overwhelming absorbtion in his work, but this was not enough to keep him from criticism, and he was periodically attacked for what the authorities saw as the excessive individualism and pessimism of his music, and in 1948, along with Shostakovich and Prokofiev, found himself one of the main targets of the infamous Zhdanov decree attacking "formalist" music. His style is, however, less abrasive than either of those two composers, and is more obviously in the Russian romantic tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

His 21st symphony was composed in 1940 concurrently with his 20th, and dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and their principal conductor Frederick Stock, who had asked Myaskovsky to compose something for them in 1938. Their performance of it on December 26 1940 was billed as a world première, but in fact the first performance had been given on 16 November by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra under Aleksandr Gauk.

The symphony is cast in a single movement, and although there are passages of livelier temprament, the predominant mood is withdrawn, epitomised by the clarinet solo which opens it, and the quiet string chords which bring it to a close. It is a testament to the inconsistencies of Soviet Arts policy that this introverted and melancholic symphony by a composer who had been condemned for these qualities was awarded a Stalin Prize in 1941.

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