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THE FRIENDSHIP OF MIASKOVSKY AND PROKOFIEV

A brief account

by

Dr David C F Wright

There was a rewarding friendship between Nicolay Miaskovsky and Sergei Prokofiev. Both studied under Rimsky-Korsakov.

Miaskovsky never married. Latterly he lived with his sister until his death in 1950.

Rimsky could be an unreasonable man. There is an account of the time he was examining a manuscript of Prokofiev and asking why he had given a melody to the oboe. Tcherepnin had said to Prokofiev that the timbre of the oboe was suitable but that Rimsky preferred the clarinet. Rimsky then asked Prokofiev why he had employed a cello solo rather than all the cellos. Prokofiev said that he did not like cellos in unison and spoke of a passage in Sibelius 's Third Symphony or perhaps it was another, that confirmed his dislike for cellos in unison. Rimsky was very cross and Prokofiev turned away. There stood Miaskovsky and Zakharov looking serious and afraid to show any sympathy. Rimsky returned the score and said, "Next!"

Miaskovsky turned up at the Conservatoire in 1906 in the uniform of a lieutenant in the engineers battalion. He was a composer with a small beard and a large portfolio. Prokofiev was ten years younger. They became friends almost immediately. They had a passionate interest in new music. Both were excited by Reger's visit in December 1906 when he conducted his Serenade in G. Miaskovsky produced a four-hand arrangement of the serenade which he and Prokofiev played. Miaskovsky went to Prokofiev's house and they played Beethoven's Ninth together. Prokofiev was the only person to have played it through complete with Miaskovsky. Prokofiev gave Miaskovsky some of his pieces and he did not criticise them. They played duets and showed each other their respective sonatas.

Prokofiev and Miaskovsky built up an extensive correspondence written over a period of 43 years. It is thought that Prokofiev wrote Miaskovsky 312 letters. Miaskovsky encouraged Prokofiev extensively and Prokofiev benefited from Miaskovsky's splendid mind. Early in his career, Prokofiev showed Miaskovsky his opera Undine and his latest pieces and the sonatas.

Miaskovsky once said to him, "I don't think you should number your sonatas since one day you will cross out all the numbers and write Sonata no. 1." This came true.

Prokofiev would write to Miaskovsky "Esteemed Nikolay Yakovlevich (Dear Kolechka)." Miaskovsky would respond, "Most beloved Sergey Sergeyevich".

Miaskovsky was a modest man. In a letter to Prokofiev of 12 July 1907 from Oranienbaum he describes himself as being profoundly lazy and sluggish. "I constantly muddle along with such trifles as my Third Piano Sonata (in two movements, the first being a small three voice fugue, Lento). (He later added two more movements and the piece began his First Piano Sonata in D minor). "Also, out of sheer idleness. I have thrown together a dozen fragments for piano, some of which are indecently brief (eight bars) and risky. Last week I set seven poems by Baratinsky to music but the songs are ordinary and would be of no interest to you " (they were later published as his Opus 1).

He continues, "One of my most piquant amusements this summer has been the study of harmony with Monsieur Kobylyansky, whom Liadov sent me. Every Tuesday he comes out to fish out fifths and octaves, play totally nonsensical modulations, and in between listen to heart rending love songs and frivolous things from operettas. In a few days I'm going to Asafiev's to recover."

Miaskovsky took an interest in all Russian music. He did not deny the sturdy quality of Glazunov's symphonies and their irreproachable counterpoint. Both he and Prokofiev found endless mistakes in the works of Tchaikovsky including the First Symphony where he wrote low notes for flute which the flute cannot play.

Prokofiev and Miaskovsky attended a performance of Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy with great interest although they were at times perplexed by the music. They both knew and liked The Divine Poem of Scriabin and were expecting an improvement.

When Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto was dismissed by the critic Bernstein as musical mud Miaskovsky was prepared to defend Prokofiev in print. The Piano Concerto no. 2 at its premiere in Pavlovsk annoyed the audience. Miaskovsky said that they 'hissed and often did not behave properly'.

Sadly, Prokofiev was profoundly jealous of Stravinsky. He once wrote to Miaskovsky that Stravinsky had written a dreadful sonata, which "he plays himself with a certain chic. The music is Bach with pockmarks."

Prokofiev was always pleased to play music by Miaskovsky. He played the older composer's Whimsies and his first wife Lina sang some of his songs in the USA in 1926. On his return to the USSR he played Whimsies again in Moscow as an encore but knowing that the composer was present he made a hash of it.

Prokofiev dedicated his Third Symphony to Miaskovsky; it was first performed in Paris on 17 May 1933 under Pierre Monteux.

Miaskovsky was honest with his friend. He did not care for his Symphonic Suite The Year 1941. He called Prokofiev's String Quartet no. 2 ‘magnificent music’. He considered the Piano Sonata no. 7 superbly wild. On the other hand, he did not like the first and third movements of the Piano Concerto no. 4.

Prokofiev's Symphonic Song was premiered in Moscow on 14 April 1934. It was a disaster. Miaskovsky said, "There were literally three claps in the hall."

Stalin did not like highbrow composers and set about the vilification of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Miaskovsky and Khachaturian. This was one of his purges which reached an unpleasant climax in 1948.

In the summer of 1946 David Oistrakh played Prokofiev's Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor at Prokofiev's country house in Nikolina Gora. Miaskovsky was there and declared it a masterpiece. He said, "My dear fellow, you don't realise what you have written." He kept saying this. He was deeply impressed with the piece.

In 1948 Miaskovsky, and five others including Prokofiev, were condemned for formalism in music and introducing inharmonious music into the Soviet educational system. While he seems to have approved of the Soviet regime the fact is that he certainly did not, and this explains why so much of his music is dark and melancholy. However, he responded with his prize-winning final symphony, no. 27 in C minor.

On 23 April 1950 Miaskovsky wrote to Prokofiev to congratulate him on his 59th birthday and saying how he was delighted with his piece Bonfire and that he was enraptured with Cinderella. Prokofiev replied on 16 May

I embrace you with all my heart. I think of you all the time.

Come to Nikolina Gora as soon as possible.

This is where Prokofiev lived with his second wife Mira. Often Prokofiev and Miaskovsky would walk through the woods and pick mushrooms. Prokofiev called Miaskovsky ‘The Master of the Mushroom Sport’.

They last walked together in July 1950.

Miaskovsky died on 8 August 1950.

Copyright Dr David C F Wright 2002

"This article must not be stored in any retrieval system or copied or used in any way in part or the whole without first obtaining the written permission of the author."

 


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