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The Mystery of Miaskovsky

February 10, 2016

There’s a bit of a mystery in this week’s subscription concerts (February 11-14). Not about Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto of course, or about our brilliant piano soloist Yefim Bronfman. And while Leoš Janáček’s Taras Bulba isn’t as well known as the Beethoven, Janáček is considered one of the greatest Czech composers. (And then there’s the 1962 Taras Bulba movie starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis!) But who is Nikolai Miaskovsky, whose Tenth Symphony rounds out the program? And why don’t we hear his music more often?

The mystery deepens when we learn that Miaskovsky wrote 27 symphonies; he was a conservatory student of Rimsky-Korsakov and a classmate of Prokofiev; he had a major influence on composers from Shostakovich to Khachaturian to Kabalevsky; he was a top-10 contemporary composer according to a 1935 CBS Radio listener poll; and yet … until now, The Philadelphia Orchestra has not played his 10th Symphony since Leopold Stokowski conducted the U.S. premiere on April 4, 1930. (Stokowski and the Philadelphians also gave the U.S. premieres of Miaskovsky’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies in 1926, and Eugene Ormandy and the Orchestra recorded the Symphony No. 21 for CBS in 1947, a work they performed in Philadelphia in four seasons, from 1944 to 1978.)

Prokofiev urged Stokowski to program the piece, after it suffered a disastrous premiere with a conductor-less ensemble in Moscow in 1928. The Philadelphia performance was reportedly well received. And the Tenth Symphony’s placement on the program gives a hint of Miaskovsky’s prominence. It was the finale, after works by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Prokofiev (along with a bit of a novelty by another Russian, Alexander Krein, called Ode of Mourning [To the Memory of Lenin]).

So why did Miaskovsky slip into obscurity? The fact that he was denounced by Soviet authorities in 1947 hardly explains his fading from the American concert scene. (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Khachaturian, among others, were also accused of anti-Soviet tendencies, and their music remains widely heard today.)

The mystery of Miaskovsky’s relative obscurity is probably unsolvable. He may simply have been a victim of the indefinable currents of musical taste.

But what a wonderful opportunity to connect with a composer whose works you’ve probably never heard, but whose musical compatriots and milieu are completely familiar! As with that 1930 Philadelphia premiere, Miaskovsky is sharing the stage with some true musical giants. After you hear his Tenth Symphony, we think you’ll agree he belongs in their company. 

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