Medtner, Nicolai Karlovich

Period: Early 20th Century

Born: 1880

Died: 1951

Nation of Origin: Russia

Major Works:

Night Wind Sonata

Other Information:

The life of Nicolai Karlovich Medtner (1880-1951) resembles the serious Russian fairy tales that inspired many of his short piano pieces. From a cultured and wealthy family, he graduated with highest honors in piano performance from the Moscow Conservatory, in an age when that institution produced many of the world's great virtuosi. Part of a circle that included many of pre-revolutionary Russia's intellectual elite, his teaching and compositions were equally admired.

Medtner stayed in Russia through the Civil War, but in 1921 left for exile and increasing artistic isolation in Germany and France. He found a second home in England, where a number of the most prominent critics were supporters; but the Second World War cut off his European royalties, his health declined, and the composer sank into semi-obscurity.

Then, in 1946, the Maharajah of Mysore--an amateur pianist and Medtner enthusiast--created and funded a Medtner Society to finance the recording of the composer's performance of his entire output. In the five years left to him Medtner recorded all three of his piano concerti, a few of his fourteen sonatas, and many songs and short piano pieces, and he was able to complete the piano quintet he had worked on for decades.

The recordings, alas, were on 78s, and virtually none were reissued until the CD era. Medtner remains forgotten except among a small body of devotees, his music regarded as retrograde, over-busy, derivative; Rachmaninoff without the tunes.

It must be admitted that Medtner's music does not stray far from the progressive harmonies of pre-war Russia; but that no longer seems a defect. Nor does it have the immediate appeal of Rachmaninoff's music. But that is hardly Medtner's fault. He did not set out to write popular music. It is not easy to grasp on first hearing, and it fails utterly to beg for attention. If one is willing to listen closely and carefully, though, the dense textures resolve into a play of voices that involve the listener at a visceral as well as an intellectual level, and one begins to grasp Medtner's strong and individual sense of form. The numerous short pieces turn out to have an extraordinary emotional range. Medtner's aesthetic is in fact very modern in its preference for compression and linear expressivity. It is also the last significant contribution to the Romantic piano repertoire.

Medtner's output diminished steadily after his exile. From 1910, when he began devoting himself exclusively to composition, to his departure from Russia in 1921, he wrote some twenty works, including some of his largest and most complex pieces. Ten more pieces appeared from 1921 to Medtner's Russian tour of 1927; and in the remaining fourteen years of his life he wrote only about ten more.

This is often ascribed to the loss of a sympathetic audience--French audiences, in particular, were deaf to Medtner's art, and his years in Paris were his loneliest--but it is more likely the result of a loss of subject matter. The great outpouring of work in the years 1910-1918, a period which saw the "Night Wind" Sonata, the Sonata-Ballade, the tight and brilliantly-worked G minor sonata, Op. 22, and the richly complex First Piano Concerto, among others, is haunted by premonitions of apocalypse. (The Night Wind sonata's epigraph makes explicit the appeal and the dread of the chaos just below the surface of things.) It was a theme Medtner shared with the symbolist poets Blok and Belyi, who were closely associated with his brother Emil; and the premonitions of both poets and composer were realized all too vividly in the incomprehensible and universal brutality of the Russian Civil War.

It was not a reality that any music could grasp or convey, and Medtner turned away from it once life outstripped his imaginings. There seem to be echoes of World War One in the piano Sonata in A minor, Op. 30 and the First Piano Concerto, Op. 33; but both these works date from before the revolution. After that divide come the three sets of Forgotten Melodies: abstract, retrospective, nostalgic, reproachful. Except for the Sonata minacciosa, Op. 53 No. 2, Medtner never again returned to the striking emotional climate of the pre-1918 works or to the portmanteau formal experiments of that period.

He wrote some great music after 1921, a surprising amount of it for the 1927 visit to Russia: the magnificent and spacious Second Violin Sonata and the ebullient Second Piano Concerto were premiered then. Something was gradually lost, though, as Medtner's art grew away from its visionary roots. Along with the urgency went much of his distinctiveness. The melodic blandness that weakens the shorter violin works also crops up in the Third Violin Sonata and Piano Concerto. These works are never less than brilliantly crafted and engaging, but they correspond more to the misleading stereotypes of Medtner than does the challenging work of his first decades.

About the Author:
Michael Steinberg is a writer and attorney who lives in Rochester, New York, and may be reached at He respects the Michael Steinberg who is the author of "The Concerto", but does not claim to be him.

Essay contributed by:
Michael Steinberg

General Bibliography:

Slonimsky, Nicolas, Music Since 1900, Schirmer Books, July 1994, ISBN: 0028724186

Salzman, Eric, Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, Pearson, October 2001, ISBN: 0130959413

Slonimsky, Nicolas and Kuhn, Laura; Editors, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Gale Group, December 2000, ISBN: 0028655257

Sadie, Stanley and Tyrrell, John; Editors, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Groves Dictionaries, Inc., January 2004, ISBN: 0195170679

Rutherford-Johnson, Tim, Kennedy, Michael, and Kennedy, Joyce The Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 6th Edition, 2012, ISBN: 0199578109

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