String Quartet No.8 in f# minor, Op.59
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.8 was composed in 1942 at the height of the Second World War and is in memory of his friend Z. P. Feldman. It is certainly one of his finest.
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, Khatchaturian, Shebalin and Shchedrin.
The opening movement, Allegro moderato, begins sadly with the viola singing a melancholy melody. It is clearly an elegy, charged with sorrowful emotion and pain. However, there is a restraint, which does not allow the emotion to get out of hand, and this creates a crystalline clarity. In the Adagio which follows, the beautiful main theme stands as a marvelous panoramic tonal tribute to his dead friend. The powerful finale, Allegro drammatico, draws on Russian folk melody for its themes. The first reflects the hectic, chaotic nature of modern life, while the second is a calmer, affectionate and pastoral tune.
While we know the quartets of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, those of Myaskovsky are every bit as deserving of our attention. Here is a work which belongs in the concert hall and which should be of interest to professional groups everywhere and which is well within the ability of amateurs.