|Nikolai Medtner was born in Moscow on January 5, 1880, descended from Livonians - Germans long settled in the Baltic countries - though throughout his life he considered himself thoroughly Russian, inseparably connected with his homeland and the whole of Russian culture. "I cannot find the words to say how much I miss my motherland," he wrote from Europe in 1923. Of his book Muse and Fashion (1935) he wrote, "I am writing it in my mother tongue and, of course, for the motherland that educated me and my artistic outlook."An intimate connection with Russian poetry and its images characterized Medtner's creative work throughout his life.|
The composer's father, Karl Petrovich, born Estonian, instilled in Nikolai this profound love for poetry, and for literature and art, creating of their home a center for the discussion of philosophy and aesthetics. Nikolai's mother, Alexandra Karlovna, brought into her son' life her great passion for music, becoming his first piano teacher. This training eventually passed into the hands of her brother, Fyodor Karlovich Goedicke, who successfully prepared young Nikolai to enter the Moscow Conservatory.
There, under the influence of its formidable director, Vasily Safonov, Medtner's keyboard technique blossomed to virtuoso levels, but the student just as avidly absorbed the principles of harmony and counterpoint, turning to composition under the guidance of the influential Sergei Taneyev. From those beginnings, Medtner's balanced but increasingly complicated harmonic language absorbed the mature contrapuntal style of which Taneyev was an incomparable master.
In 1900, Medtner graduated with distinction, Safonov remarking that he should have been awarded not a gold, but a diamond medal - if such ever existed! That same year, the 20-year-old was awarded First Honorable Mention at Vienna's Third International Anton Rubinstein Compeition. Medtner later appeared in Moscow under the baton of the legendary Arthur Nikisch, playing the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto. In Germany, he performed solo works of Beethoven and Schumann. In Berlin and Leipzig, he introduced his own piano compositions and songs.
In 1908, Medtner returned to the Conservatory as a professor - but not for long, although evidence of his original and, by all accounts, memorable teaching may be found in the book compiled from his teaching notes, Daily Work of a Pianist and Composer. With the production of several piano sonatas, some shorter piano pieces and of a number of songs - he would eventually write more than one hundred - Medtner's image as a composer clarified itself and he resigned that first teaching post after year to devote full time to his music, participate actively in Moscow's various professional societies, perform composer's concerts, and serve on the advisory panel of Sergei Koussevitsky's newly founded Editions Russes de la Musique.
Although he resumed his professorship from 1915 to 1921 - remaining there throughout the First World War, the 1917 Revolution and its aftermath - composition and performance of his music so filled Medtner's life that he left Russia to acquaint the West with his newest works. But both fear of hardships caused by economic collapse in Russia and incomprehension of the magnitude of historic events experienced in his homeland had their unintended effect: what was to have been a limited tour for Medtner became a virtual emigration. Except for a brief return in 1927, the composer remained abroad until his death in London, on November 13, 1951.
Alongside the great classical piano literature, Medtner had performed his own music in Germany, Poland, the Baltic Republics, Italy, France, America, Canada and England. But the critical and public acclaim that greeted his music did little to offset his discontent and intense nostalgia. From America, in 1925, he wrote: "… I am dreaming of Moscow." In 1941 and shortly after: "… I am experiencing Moscow as though I'm there … I hope that your great nation will be able to defend itself, its motherland, and its great historic and spiritual culture."
Medtner's music continued to be published in the 1920s, but at the start of the new decade the official attitude toward the composer changed, and performances of his work were discouraged. Eventually, in the late 1950s, following the composer's death, his collected works were published in the Soviet Union, edited by the virtuoso Vladimir Sofronitsky (the composer's student) and by Alexander Goldenweiser, late Director of the Moscow conservatory, champion of Scriabin's piano music, and close colleague of both Rachmaninoff and Medtner.
How do we assess this composer "newly" in our midst? By what standards does one measure his contributions to 20th-century literature in all its diversity?
Faced with three decades of shifting style, compositional vogues and musical fads, Medtner remained faithful to the standard of clarity of purpose he learned form a life-time of classical performance. Above all, he considered himself Beethoven's student. Reflecting his approach "in defense of the fundamentals of musical art," the composer later wrote (in Muse and Fashion) of the essence of theme, melody, form and rhythm, and of the "principal meanings" and "unwritten laws that are the foundation of musical language." In later years, Alexander Glazunov called Nikolai Medtner "an artist guarding the eternal laws of art."
Based in part on Geoffrey Tozer's 1992 Medtner biography
and on P. Vassiliev's introduction to the Complete
Works edition, 1959, translated by Robert Rimm