Nikolai Medtner – Composer-pianist between Tradition and Symbolism

Nikolai Karlovich Medtner was born in January 1880 into a privileged and cultured Muscovite family, being the youngest of five siblings. His father was a merchant and factory manager; his mother, trained as a pianist and vocalist, began teaching the boy on the piano. In 1892 Nikolai enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory where he was educated primarily as a pianist. His professors were Paul Pabst, Vasily Sapelnikov, and Vasily Safonov under whose guidance he developed to a promising young virtuoso. He was taught in music theory by Anton Arensky, and later in the class of Sergey Taneyev which he attended only irregularly. Except for a series of private consultations with Taneyev, Medtner did not receive formal education as a composer. In 1900 he graduated from the Conservatory with a small gold medal in piano performance. A few months later he decided, to the dismay of his teachers and family, not to pursue a career as a pianist, but to devote himself to composing. First piano pieces appeared in print in 1903. Yet Medtner continued to perform as a pianist on a regular basis, mainly focusing on his own music.


After extensive travels and concert tours, Medtner accepted a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, teaching a piano class in the years of 1915–1919. Still, he was uneasy with this occupation and would reject several other teaching positions in the future. As a result of the Russian revolution and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1921, Medtner and his wife emigrated to Berlin. In the following years they frequently changed their residence, living in Germany, France, and eventually moving to England. As a composer, Medtner was only moderately successful in Western Europe, and there were few advocates of his music. In 1935 he published a music-aesthetical volume named The Muse and the Fashion, supported by his close friend Sergey Rachmaninov. In the same year he finally settled in Golders Green near London. From 1947 on Medtner was promoted by an Indian maharadjah who funded several recordings of his compositions, before he died of heart disease in November 1951.


Even today Medtner’s music is rarely found in public concert programmes, other than his position in early-twentieth-century music history would suggest, and the reception of his works is overshadowed by those of his famous contemporaries. However, he has not fallen into oblivion—performers and researchers have increasingly advocated Medtner during the last two decades, even if he is still seen as a conservative figure in music. This is mainly due to his traditionalist worldview and rejection of the musical avantgarde of his time. Thus, a stylistic assessment of Medtner and his oeuvre is not easy and must take into consideration his aesthetic roots and cultural environment. The influence of his eldest brother Emil, a lawyer, music critic, and philosopher, on young Nikolai’s artistic socialisation cannot be overestimated. Equally relevant is his relationship to the poet Andrey Bely and to the school of Russian Symbolism. Since the Medtner family was highly influenced by German-speaking culture, the poetry of Goethe was a principal source of inspiration for Nikolai’s early songs and instrumental works, while Beethoven remained a principal point of reference throughout his life. Only in the middle of his creative period he began turning towards Russian literature.


The largest group of Medtner’s works are his fourteen piano sonatas, published during the years of 1903–1937. Many of them are cast in one movement, and some are embedded in cycles of character pieces. In their entirety, the sonatas incorporate an astonishing variety of musical forms and prove the composer’s mastery of the genre on every page. There is also a large number of piano miniatures, named Forgotten Melodies or Improvisations, and a collection of 38 skazki (tales). Furthermore, Medtner composed more than 100 songs and a number of large-scale chamber works, such as three violin sonatas and a piano quintet. His only orchestral works are three piano concertos, which means that all of Medtner’s compositions include a piano part. Particularly interesting are the frequent subtitles which add an intertextual or hermeneutic layer to the corresponding works (as seen for instance in the Sonata-Elegy, Sonata-Ballade, Sonata romantica or Sonata tragica). Some compositions relate to a spiritual or literary inspiration, such as piano sonatas preceded by a motto from Goethe or Tyutchev. On the whole, Medtner’s music is by no means programmatic, but it might be characterised as Symbolist art in the broadest sense.

 Wendelin Bitzan


from Wendelin Bitzan