Thoughts on Miaskovsky
By Irina Nuzova
Miaskovsky’s Sonata No. 2 in A minor is a rare gem. It was the impetus for this first recording project of the cello-piano duo Wendy and I formed in 2008. Why Miaskovsky? Because outside of Russia this special work remains largely unknown: only around a dozen recordings have been made in the last few decades, and almost every one of these involves Russian performers. We are proud to be the first to record this sonata on American soil, with an American cellist, and on an American label. But we still have strong Russian roots: Wendy Warner studied and performed extensively with Mstislav Rostropovich and Russia remains my native culture — musically and emotionally.
A Russian maxim reads, “All is not gold that glitters.” I would say that the reverse applies to Miaskovsky and this sonata in particular: Something that does not glitter can still be gold. The sonata’s pervasive, nostalgic quality speaks to the Russian soul and mind, but it is subtle and subdued in its expression. Its intrigue and inspiration may not be fully apparent upon first hearing; the music is rather introverted and does not sweep up the listener like Rachmaninov’s sonata. But Miaskovsky’s sonata is absolutely jewel-like in its clarity and simplicity.
Although Miaskovsky was celebrated in his time, his creative endeavor was still a personal struggle. Like much of the Russian intelligentsia, he was faced with the historical “break” caused by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The question was: how to resolve the profound disconnect with the past while preserving personal integrity. The newly formed proletariat ideology was not a language everyone could adopt with ease. Prokofiev found expression in liveliness and mischievousness; Shostakovich in sarcasm and irony. Miaskovsky stood to the side of those giants in a quiet way. Perhaps he had to suppress his stronger sentiments, but his voice remained his own: unsentimental yet sensitive, unpretentious yet firm, restrained yet consistent.
Miaskovsky’s music expresses its emotional reserve with dignity. His theme is nostalgia for Russia as it existed in the 19th century, preceding the turbulence of the 20th century in which he lived but to which he perhaps felt a stranger. His music does not exhibit any of the innovations from the early 20th century: atonality, polytonality, 12-tone system, or neo-classicism. Rather, Miaskovsky fits in with the romantic tradition of the late-19th century. From this perspective, his music may be thought of as neo-romantic.
Miaskovsky’s Song Cycle Op. 1 sets a poem by Baratynsky, a Pushkin contemporary. If one were to substitute ‘music’ for ‘verse’, and ‘listener’ for ‘reader’, the poem might well read as an epigraph to his creative oeuvre, as well as to the composer’s modesty.
Untitled, translated by Peter France
My talent is pitiful, my voice not loud,
but I am living; somewhere in the world
someone looks kindly on my life; far off
one of my descendants will read my words
and discover me; and, it may be, my soul
will connect with his soul, and as I
have found a friend in this generation,
I shall find a reader in posterity.
Мой дар убог, и голос мой негромок,
Но я живу и на земле мое
Кому-нибудь любезно бытие:
Его найдёт далёкий мой потомок
В моих стихах; как знать? душа моя
Окажется с душой его в сношеньи,
И как нашёл я друга в поколеньи,
Читателя найду в потомстве я.
In performing the A minor sonata, I am drawn towards images of Russian nature. The Russian soul is tied up in so many ways with the Russian landscape, which is, after all, one of the few enduring touchstones of our collective memory. Also, for me, having left the Soviet Union in the early nineties, it is associated with the pangs of nostalgia for my native country. Surely Miaskovsky also gained inspiration from images of the vast Russian landscape, and in particular the rich literary tradition associated with it. The first movement, in quite an organic and natural way, brings to my mind a poem by the Russian symbolist Konstantin Balmont (1867–1942). The poem, “Bezglagol'nost" (translated as “Wordlessness”), conveys the melancholy beauty and boundlessness of Russia’s fields and rivers, and their vast quietness, with its intimation of timeless sadness. No English translation existed for this poem, and I have found myself hard-put to explain its meaning to non-Russian speakers. Happily, Angela Livingstone (Professor Emeritus, Essex University, England) generously offered to make the first translation into English specifically for this recording project.
Wordlessness, translated by Angela Livingstone
In all Russian nature there’s tenderness, tiredness,
An unrevealed sorrow, a pain that is speechless,
Unsoothable mourning, immensity, silence,
Cold height, and an endlessly vanishing distance.
At daybreak come out to the slope of a hillside—
The shivering river is misty with coolness,
And black is the motionless mass of the pinewoods.
Your heart feels a pang, and your heart is not gladdened.
The reeds are unstirring, the sedge doesn’t quiver.
Deep quiet. And wordlessness, utterly peaceful.
The meadows spread out faraway and forever.
In everything - weariness, muteness and bleakness.
At sunset, go into— as into cool water —
The wildness and chill of a villager’s garden—
There, trees are so strangely unspeaking and sombre,
Your heart feels a sadness, your heart is not gladdened.
As if your soul asked for the thing it was seeking
And got in response an unmerited anguish.
Your heart did forgive, but your heart became lifeless,
And cannot cease weeping and weeping and weeping
Есть в русской природе усталая нежность,
Безмолвная боль затаенной печали,
Безвыходность горя, безгласность,
Холодная высь, уходящие дали.
Приди на рассвете на склон косогора,—
Над зябкой рекою дымится прохлада,
Чернеет громада застывшего бора,
И сердцу так больно, и сердце не радо.
Недвижный камыш. Не трепещет осока.
Глубокая тишь. Безглагольность покоя.
Луга убегают далеко-далеко.
Во всем утомленье — глухое, немое.
Войди на закате, как в свежие волны,
В прохладную глушь деревенского сада,—
Деревья так сумрачно-странно-безмолвны,
И сердцу так грустно, и сердце не радо.
Как будто душа о желанном просила,
И сделали ей незаслуженно больно.
И сердце простило, но сердце застыло,
И плачет, и плачет, и плачет невольно.