NikolaiKarlovich Medtner (1879-1951)
NikolaiKarlovich Medtner was born in Moscow on 5th January 1880 (24th December 1879according to the old style or Julian calendar). His parents were of Germandescent, though their families had lived in Russia for several generations.
There were a number of musicians on the maternal side, and Medtner received hisfirst piano lessons at the age of six from his mother. At ten he began studieswith his uncle, Fyodor Karlovich Goedicke, who was a professor of piano at MoscowConservatory. The young pupil would have nothing of "children'smusic" but demanded Bach, Mozart and Scarlatti, no doubt to his uncle'sdelight.
Froma very early age Medtner showed a keen desire to compose, and at the age oftwelve he entered Moscow Conservatory , where he studied piano, theory andgeneral science. Alexander Taneyev, his counterpoint teacher, declared,"Medtner was born with sonata form", and he continued to encourage acareer in composition even while others urged him to become a concert pianist.
During his last three years at the conservatory, Medtner studied piano with thebrilliant Vasily Il'ich Safonov, who also taught Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Whenhe left the conservatory in 1900, he received a gold medal in piano, and Safonov,in presenting the award, announced that Medtner deserved a diamond medal ifsuch existed.
ThereafterMedtner quicky won recognition as one of the finest pianists of his generation.
The years saw a continuing conflict. however, between public performance,teaching and composition. In 1921 along with his friend Rachmaninov and othercompatriots. Medtner left Russia and went into voluntary exile abroad. Hereturned there only once on a concert tour in 1927. Going first to Germany,then around Europe and to America on concert tours, he settled in France in1925. There a fellow expatriate, Alexander Glazunov, upheld him as "thefirm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art" - hardly a ringingendorsement in 1920s Paris. Finding his music out of step in France and feelingno sympathy with Parisian musical fashion, he moved in 1935 to England, wherehe had already been made an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music sevenyears earlier and where he enjoyed a particularly enthusiastic following.
In1946 the financial support of the Maharajah of Mysore and the cooperation ofthe Gramophone Company led to the establishment of a Medtner Society . Thoughheart disease had forced his retirement in 1944, Medtner recorded his threepiano cancertos, many solo pieces and some songs under the society's auspices.
Composition and recording occupied his last years as health permitted, and heworked with dedication until his final heart attack five days before his deathon 13 November 1951.
Medtnerwas a man of deep religious conviction, and he approached music with similarreverence. He spake of inspiration as mysterious, its gifts as unexpected, andof the necessity of unrestrained dedication to work: without inspiration workis pointless, yet without work inspiration is nothing. Born to an age dominatedby upheaval in the arts, he asserted his independence by actively opposing theartistic climate. He summed up his credo by quoting I Corinthians 14:8-9:"For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself tothe battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to beunderstood, how shall it be known w hat is spoken? For ye shall speak into theair."
Thequotation explains Medtner's lifelong aloofness from cantemporary trends. His uttersincerity revealed itself from the very beginning in a musical language fullyformed and grounded firmly in tradition. From then on Medtner's idiom underwenta process not of stylistic evolution but of ever deepening maturation. ErnestNewman called him "one of those composers who are classics in theirlifetime."
Bach,Beethoven and Brahms are Medtner's true ancestors. In the early worksSchumann's influence is felt, even in matters of titles and notation. Beforethe period of his mystical excesses. Scriabin too exerted an influence, and theharmonic language of The Divine Poem and the Fourth Sonata seeped intoMedtner's consciousness. From 1906 a gradual stylistic refinement andsimplification can be discerned, even though the late works lack nothing infull-blooded, romantic virtuosity.
Occasionallythe melodic and harmonic intonations of Russian folk music bear witness toMedtner's dual cultural heritage and certainly contribute to his musicalidentity , but his Russianness exists fundamentally on the psychological plane.
Medtner seldom availed himself of what he termed "ethnographictrimmings", and those very characteristics which are linked in the popularperception to "Russian music" - folk-like melody, brilliant harmonicand orchestral colour, exotidsm and rhythmic excitement - are notably absentfrom his work.
Itis difficult to think of melody, harmony and rhythm as discrete entities inMedtner's music, for they are integrated to a remarkable degree. The composersaw music as an indissoluble unity proceeding in a logical sequence of eventsfrom the bare simplicity of the tonic itself to the greatest complexities ofsonata form. To him music was basically song, and melody is the basis of hismusical construction. A theme is acquired intuitively - not invented, and thefulfillment of its potentiality becomes the composer's command. Though hardlyinnovative in themselves, Medtner's melodic ideas assume an individuality thatis more than adequate proof of genius, inextricably linked to a consummateknowledge of form, his melodic instinct, stylistic differences aside, must becompared to Beethoven's. With both composers form is not a ready-made mould inwhich to pour ideas but something created by the ideas themselves.
Thereexists also an intimate relationship between form and harmony: a fundamentalharmonic sense is for Medtner a necessary key to the mystery of musicalconstruction. It follows that the nonfunctional harmony of the impressionists,the clashes of polytonality and the meaningless sound aggregates of atonalitywere alien to his musical thought. Thus Medtner's harmonic language remainedwithin the boundaries of nineteenth century romanticism, and though harmony isperhaps his least distinctive feature, that is not to say that he did notemploy the rules with a certain individuality. One characteristic is a darknessin the lower keyboard that recalls the Russian aspect of his nature.
Anylack of harmonic originality is more than compensated by Medtner's powerful,often novel rhythmic instinct. Its boundless variety is for some his mostreadily identifiable feature. Just as he consistently sought balance in melodicconstruction, so was he averse to asymmetry in barring. He rarely introducedtime changes. Nevertheless he achieved remarkable and wholly individualcomplexities through all manner of syncopation, stressed weak beats, subtleshifting of accents and the cross-play of different rhythmic patterns in theright and left hands. Never an end in itself, rhythm becomes here a vehicle ofprofound meaning, with which Medtner expressed some of his most intimatethoughts. As an idealist h