Nikolai Myaskovsky, String Quartet No.13 in a minor, Op.86

Nikolai Myaskovsky

Nikolai Myaskovsky (1881-1950) has to be one of the most underrated composers of the 20th century. Most who come to his music for the first time are amazed that it is not better known. He wrote some 27 symphonies and 13 string quartets. String Quartet No.13 not only was his last such work it was his last work altogether. It was composed in 1949 at a time when the composer clearly new he was dying and hence it is in a way his musical testament. As one critic put it, "From the opening bars of the quartet and over the pulsing 8th notes in the viola and second violin, the cello brings forth a rising melody—it is like a prayer, humble and resigned, yet fervent. There is no mistaking that this is a masterpiece."

Myaskovsky was born in Congress (i.e. Russian) Poland near Warsaw, where his father, a military engineer was then serving. He took piano and violin lessons as a boy but followed in his father's footsteps, entering the military academy and graduating as an engineer. When he was posted to Moscow, he studied composition with Reinhold Gliere. Upon transfer to St. Petersburg, he finally decided to become a composer and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov. It was there he met Prokofiev with whom he became close friends. He served in WWI and was severely wounded on the Austrian front. After the war, he taught for most of his life at the Moscow Conservatory. Among his many students were Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Shebalin and Shchedrin.

The lovely cello melody of opening movement, Moderato, in many ways sets the tone for the entire piece. There is passion and yet a valedictory mood of leave taking. It is very Russian in its romanticism. The second subject is a jaunty, angular dance-like tune which brightens the heavy mood of the opening. A third more reflective theme follows. The second movement, Presto fantastico, is a kind of disjointed scherzo in three parts. In the first section, the melody swirls about to endlessly varying rhythmical combinations. This is followed an episode in which the violin and then the cello launch into a jerky melody over an insistent 8th note accompaniment in the other voices. This is followed by a mysterious, delicate interlude. Next comes a slower movement, Andante con moto, which is in the form of an updated, simple romance, quiet and peaceful. From the opening measures of the finale, Molto vivo, energico, the main theme, which is dominated by its resolute and impulsive rhythm, bursts forth. Rather than a typical development, Myaskovsky forces this theme to alternative with a more mellow and lyrical section. With each repeat, they are slowly developed.

While we know the quartets of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, those of Myaskovsky are every bit as deserving of our attention. Here is another fine work which belongs in the concert hall and which should be of interest to professional groups everywhere, but which is well within the ability of amateurs.

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