The youngest of five children, Nikolai Medtner was born in Moscow on the Christmas Eve 1879 according to the Julian calendar, but 5 January 1880 according to the Gregorian calendar. A younger contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, he wrote a substantial number of compositions, all of which include the piano. His life's work consists of fourteen piano sonatas, three more with violin, three piano concerti, a piano quintet, two works for two pianos, many shorter piano pieces, and 108 songs including two substantial works for vocalise.
His 38 piano pieces called Skazki (generally known as "Fairy Tales" in English but more correctly translated as "Tales") contain some of his most original music and are as core to his output as the piano sonatas.
Medtner first took piano lessons from his mother until the age of ten, when he entered the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated in 1900 at the age of 20, taking the Anton Rubinstein prize, having studied under such teachers as Pabst, Sapellnikoff, Safonov, and Taneyev. Despite his conservative musical tastes, Medtner's compositions were highly regarded by his contemporaries and his skills as a piano virtuoso were second only to Rachmaninoff. To the consternation of his family, but with the support of his former teacher Taneyev, he soon rejected a career as a performer and turned instead to composition, becoming one of the few composers who took up the musical challenge laid down by Beethoven in his late piano sonatas and string quartets, which served as the starting point for Medtner's own works.
During the years leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, Medtner lived at home with his parents. It was during this time that Medtner fell in love with Anna Mikhaylovna Bratenskaya, a well-regarded violinist and the young wife of his older brother Emil. Emil was later interned in Germany, where he had been studying when World War I broke out, and generously gave Anna her freedom to marry his brother. Medtner and Anna were married in 1918.
Unlike his friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, Medtner did not leave Russia until well after the Revolution. Rachmaninoff secured Medtner a tour of the United States and Canada in 1924. His recitals were often all-Medtner evenings consisting of sonatas interspersed with songs and shorter pieces. Medtner never adapted himself to the commercial aspects of touring and concerts became infrequent. Esteemed in England, he settled in London in 1936, modestly teaching, playing and composing to a strict daily routine.
Hardship really hit at the outbreak of the Second World War; his income from German publishers disappeared and ill health became an increasing problem. His devoted pupil Edna Iles gave him shelter in Warwickshire where he completed his Third Piano Concerto, performing it at a 1943 Promenade Concert.
In 1946 the unexpected happened. The Maharaja of Mysore, (part of India and now a state of Karnataka), His Highness Jayachamaraja Wodeyar Bahadur, himself an honorary Fellow of Trinity College of Music, London, in 1945 and the first president of the Philharmonia Concert Society, London in 1948, founded a Medtner Society, London in 1949 to record all of Medtner’s works. Medtner was already in declining health but managed to record his three Piano Concertos plus sonatas, chamber music, numerous songs and shorter works before his death in London in 1951. In one of these recordings he partnered Benno Moiseiwitsch in his two-piano work entitled "Russian Round-Dance", Op 58 No 1, and accompanied Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in several of his lieder, including The Muse, a Pushkin setting from 1913. These historic recordings demonstrate a forceful creative personality undimmed by failing health. In gratitude to his patron, Medtner dedicated his Third Piano Concerto to the Maharaja.
The Second, Third and Fourth piano sonatas, one-movement works each, can be played separately, but together form the "Sonata-Triad" (op. 11, in A-flat, D minor and C major, written 1904–8.) The First is an ecstatic work with attractive, lyrical themes, prefaced by a poem by Goethe. The Second is entitled "Sonate-Elegie", opening slowly with one of Medtner's most memorable themes, closing with an animated coda (Allegro molto doppio movimento, in D major); and the Third returns to the lyricism of the First, a satisfying conclusion to this trio of works.
The Fifth and most popular of his sonatas, in G minor opus 22 of 1909 – 1910, alternates a slow Introduction with a three-theme, propulsive sonata movement one of whose themes was heard in the Introduction. The emotional center of this compact work (fifteen minutes in duration) is the Interludium: Andante lugubre which comprises most of the development section. This work and the Sonata-Reminiscenza are the sonatas most often performed and recorded.
The Sixth Sonata followed soon after, the first of two which comprise his opus 25. It bears the title "Sonata-Skazka," which translates as "Fairy Tale Sonata." This short work in C minor, written in 1910–1, is in three movements (the second and third are connected): Allegro abbandonamente, Andantino con moto, and Allegro con spirito. The first movement is a compact sonata-form, the slow movement rondo-like (the similarity to a famous melody by Rachmaninoff is coincidental, as the latter was not written until some thirty years later!). A minatory final march with variations ends with a Coda which revisits earlier material.
The other half of opus 25 is entirely different. The Seventh Sonata in E minor, "Night Wind" (after Tyutchev's poem "O chem ty voesh' vetr nochnoy...", an excerpt of which provides an epigraph) was completed in 1911 and dedicated to Sergei Rachmaninoff, who immediately recognised its greatness. It is a vast one-movement work, lasting almost 35 minutes, in two major parts: an Introduction and Allegro sonata-form, followed by a Fantasy capped by a shadowy but active Coda, the latter entirely and ingeniously based on material presented in the Introduction. Under the title "Sonata" appear the words: "The whole piece is in an epic spirit". As Geoffrey Tozer put it, this work "has the reputation of being a fearsomely difficult work of extraordinary length, exhausting to play and to hear, but of magnificent quality and marvelous invention." There are several fine recordings in the catalogue.
The Eighth "Sonata-Ballade" (opus 27, in F-sharp major) began as a one-movement work, and expanded into its present form over the period 1912–4: Ballade, Introduction and Finale. The tonality and some of the material make passing reference to Chopin's Barcarolle. The first movement opens with one of Medtner’s lovely pastoral melodies. The finale, like the Piano Quintet, has a thematic connection with his Pushkin setting The Muse. Medtner himself recorded this work.
The one-movement Ninth Sonata, opus 30 in A minor, is unusual in the series for having no title (unless one counts the opus 5, or calls it "War Sonata" as is occasionally done: prefacing the score are the words "during the war 1914-1917") It is a dark, terse and harmonically exploratory work of considerable power.
The "Reminiscenza" Tenth Sonata, opus 38 no. 1 in A minor, commences a set of eight pieces entitled "Forgotten Melodies (First Cycle)" (there are three cycles in all, opp. 38, 39, and 40). Both this and the next Sonata were written 1918 – 1920. This single movement is one of Medtner's most poetic creations; as the title indicates, its character is nostalgic and wistful. Other pieces in opus 38 contain variants of the Sonata's opening theme, such as the concluding "Alla Reminiscenza". This sonata is well served by recordings.
The Eleventh, "Sonata Tragica" opus 39 no. 5 in C minor, concludes "Forgotten Melodies (Second Cycle)". (There is some repetition of themes in this set as well— the piece which precedes the Sonata, "Canzona Mattinata", contains a theme which recurs in the Sonata, and according to Medtner's wishes both pieces are to be played attacca — without pause.) This is also a single movement sonata-form, but Allegro, dramatic and ferocious, with three themes of which one (the reminiscence from "Canzona Mattinata") fails to return. A violent coda concludes. Medtner recorded the piece.
The Twelfth Sonata, entitled "Romantica", opus 53 no. 1 (B-flat minor) was written some years later along with its twin, in 1931–2. Returning to a four-movement form, it consists of a Romance (B-flat minor,) a Scherzo (E-flat minor,) a Meditazione (B minor,) and a Finale (B-flat minor,) and was written between the Second and Third Piano Concerti. The ending quotes his Sonata-Skazka, opus 25 no. 1.
The Thirteenth Sonata, entitled "Minacciosa" ("Menacing", sometimes mistranslated as "Tempest",) opus 53 no. 2 (F minor) is another one‐movement work — indeed a menacing, highly-chromatic work (if not so much as opus 30), with an impressive fugue. It was dedicated to the Canadian pianist and pupil of Scriabin, Alfred Laliberté, one of Medtner's most loyal supporters.
The last of the sonatas, "Idyll-Sonata", opus 56 in G major, was written in 1937. This is a gentle, two-movement work — a short Allegretto cantabile Pastorale and a rondo Allegro moderato e cantabile (sempre al rigore di tempo) with delicate harmonic colorings, in which the "cantabile" indications in both movements reflect the overall mood.
Piano Concerto No. 1, op. 33 in C minor 1914–8. Dedicated to the composer's mother, this one-movement work opens with an exposition section setting out the material for the work, the opening pages of which erupt with fireworks from the piano against a memorable, surging orchestral statement of the subject. A set of variations make up the central development before the opening returns two thirds of the way through the piece. Eventually the coda sets out the romantic "big tune" before the final pages lead to an unexpected bittersweet ending.
Piano Concerto No. 2, op. 50 in C minor 1920–7. Dedicated to Rachmaninoff, who dedicated his own Fourth Concerto to Medtner. In three movements: Toccata, and a Romanza from which follows a Divertimento. The first movement is propulsive with kinetic energy, and there is much dialogue between piano and orchestra (a subsidiary theme resembles the Fairy Tale from the op. 14 (1906–7) pair, the March of the Paladin). The Romanza and Divertimento are each in their own way varied in character, the Divertimento particularly rich in inspiration.
Piano Concerto No. 3, "Ballade", op. 60 in E minor, 1940–3. The factors which led to the creation of this work are closely connected to the circumstances of his final years. It is dedicated to his generous patron, the Maharaja of Mysore. Three connected movements: the first, Con moto largamente, sustained and profound, slowly developing motion and energy; the second an Interludium, Allegro, molto sostenuto, misterioso quotes the first movement and prefigures the finale; a lengthy Allegro molto. Svegliando, eroico vigorously concludes the work. Medtner recorded all three Concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1947.
Violin Sonata No. 3, op. 57 in E minor, 1938. Recorded by David Oistrakh among others. A vast work in four movements, a counterpart to his "Night Wind" Piano Sonata No 7. Introduzione — Andante meditamente, Scherzo — Allegro molto vivace, leggiero, Andante con moto, Finale — Allegro molto. A motto theme in the Introduction juxtaposes chords quietly but insistently, joined by a melody on the violin. The melody becomes the first theme of the — lengthy — sonata-form movement that follows, juxtaposed with other themes including a march in imitation. The folksy and syncopated Scherzo in A minor, thematically related to the opening movement’s faster sections, is in Rondo-form. After a reminiscence of the motto, the Andante is a lament in F minor, extremely Russian in sentiment. The virtuoso Finale has thematic elements related to Russian Orthodox liturgical music (Medtner was born Lutheran but late in life converted to Orthodox).
The Piano Quintet in C Major, op. posth., was published after the composer's death. He worked on sketches of the work from 1903 until its completion in 1949. Medtner considered it the ultimate summary of his musical life and it contains some of his finest and most spiritual music. Medtner recorded the work in the last years of his life, but that recording has never been commercially released. There are a number of contemporary recordings in the catalogue.
Geoffrey Tozer is said to be recording Medtner's complete output, Hamish Milne has recorded most of the solo piano works, while Geoffrey Douglas Madge and Konstantin Scherbakov have recorded the three piano concertos. Other pianists who championed Medtner's work and left behind recordings include Benno Moiseiwitsch, Edna Iles, Emil Gilels, Evgeni Svetlanov, Earl Wild and Malcolm Binns. In modern times, pianists noted for their advocacy include Marc-André Hamelin, Irina Mejoueva, Nikolai Demidenko, Boris Berezovsky and Paul Stewart. The last 20 years has seen a big increase in recording activity, if not in live performances, and the solo piano and chamber music discography is looking quite healthy.
Far fewer singers have tackled the songs. Medtner himself recorded a selection with the sopranos Oda Slobodskaya, Tatiana Makushina, Margaret Ritchie and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. In recent times Susan Gritton and Ludmilla Andrew have recorded complete CDs with Geoffrey Tozer, as has Caroline Vitale with Peter Baur. A handful of other singers have included Medtner songs in compilations; particularly notable are recordings by Zara Dolukhanova and Irina Arkhipova. However many songs await their first recording.
Barrie Martyn's Nicolas Medtner: His Life and Music (ISBN 0-85967-959-4) is a scholarly account of the composer's life and works. It provides the biographical context of every composition along with musical analysis or commentary. Extracts from letters, contemporary sources, and compositions are interspersed throughout the narrative, along with a good number of photographs.
After Medtner's death, the Mysore Foundation sponsored the publication of Medtner: A Memorial Volume, also titled Nicolas Medtner (1879-1951): A Tribute to his Art and Personality. It contains photographs and essays from his widow, friends, critics, musicians, composers, and admirers. A few of the contributors were: Alfred Swan, translator of Medtner's The Muse and the Fashion into English, Ivan Ilyin, Ernest Newman, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Marcel Dupré, Russian music critic Leonid Sabeneev, Canadian pianist and close friend of the composer Alfred Laliberté, singers Margaret Ritchie, Tatania Makushina and Oda Slobodskaya, and Medtner himself via extracts from Muse and the Fashion. The editor of the volume was Richard Holt.
In 2004, Natalia Konsistorum published, in Russian, Nikolai Karlovich Medtner: Portrait of a Composer (ISBN 3-89487-500-3). The book is available in a German translation by Christoph Flamm and is notable for the two CDs it contains with original recordings of a variety of Medtner's works.
There have been numerous dissertations on Medtner's music. One of the most influential is Der russische Komponist Nikolaj Metner : Studien und Materialien by Christoph Flamm. Originally presented as the author's Ph.D thesis (Heidelberg, 1995), it was published by Kuhn (ISBN 3928864246, 1995, out of print). It includes letters, reviews and other documents in German, Russian, English and French, a bibliography and partial discography.
In 2003, David J. Skvorak wrote a doctoral thesis Thematic unity in Nicolas Medtner's works for piano : Skazki, sonatas, and piano quintet at the University of Cincinnati, published by UMI. It contains theoretical analyses of several of Medtner's works.
For details of other publications, including dissertations at US Universities listed on the Wordcat library database, see www.medtner.org.uk