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The Magic of Medtner

Nikolai Medtner
Nikolai Medtner

When I was in college in the late 1960s, early 70s, electronic and avant-garde music was all the rage, at least in my circles. Honestly everyone else listened to Rock, but I was fascinated by what is ineptly named “Classical Music.” In the 20th century, a century of the utmost human drama and scientific progress, there was a notion that music constantly needed to evolve. The problem was that most of the possible harmonic evolution in so-called “tonal” music had already occurred in the 19th century. Starting with Beethoven who bridged the classical and romantic periods, developed by Chopin and Liszt, and culminating with Wagner, the master musical manipulator of emotion, pretty much every possible harmony that made any kind of sense in a tonal system had already been written by 1900. In the 20th century there then were two kinds of musicians: those who took the 19th century harmonic palette and wrote works with it, and those who decided to test the limits of music by going off into new directions. Composers like Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Bartok are examples of the first type of composer, and Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Ives, Boulez, Carter and Stockhausen are examples of the second type of composer. Some will object that the two classes aren’t really separate, that composers like Prokofiev and Bartok were harmonically and rhythmically audacious, and composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg wrote tonal works early on. The distinction though I would like to make is that the first group of composers never abandoned tonality, while the second group were more radically experimental and wrote truly atonal music.

In the 20th century the composers of the former group were often looked down upon, whereas the second group, the experimenters, were the darlings of the musical world. This attitude led to curious concert programming, with 19th century staples sharing the concert stage with the latest aleatoric piece by John Cage. Nevertheless the listening public always preferred the more tonal pieces, and today the 20th century experimenters in music are the ones neglected, whereas many fine 20th century tonal composers are being rediscovered.

I was very enthusiastic about avant-garde music in college. I liked electronic and musique-concrete experimenters like Edgard Varese and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I wrote electronic music in the Bregman Electronic Music Studio at Dartmouth under the tutelage of composer Jon Appleton.  (Don’t believe me?  Check out the Baker Library Catalog.)  I corresponded with Elliott Carter who was nice and patient enough to write me back a long letter about modern music. My piano teacher was Milton Babbitt’s uncle. Babbitt wrote serial music that serialized not just tones, but dynamics, timing, and so forth. Listening to it brings to mind the quote that Mark Twain was fond of using about Wagner’s music: “It’s better than it sounds.” My piano teacher though had also met Rachmaninoff, and, despite the experimentation of my college years (doesn’t everyone experiment in college?) I never lost my love for tonal music, especially as written by the great Russians: Rachmaninoff, Scriabin (who remained tonal but did develop some unconventional harmnonies), and of course the subject of this post, Nicholai Medtner.

Medtner lived from 1880 to 1951. He was a friend of Rachmaninoff. The two of them corresponded, comparing notes while composing their (Medtner’s second and Rachmaninoff’s fourth) piano concertos. Superficially the two composers have a similar harmonic style. Medtner, perhaps not quite as melodically gifted as Rachmaninoff (was anyone?), exceeds his colleague in the complexity of his counterpoint and depth of his compositions. Harmonically he used the complete palette of romanticism, but did not forge new ground. He does have a very distinctive and recognizable style, much like Rachmaninoff has. (I once heard on the radio a piece I had never heard before, and knew it had to be Rachmaninoff from the style, and it was.) Like Chopin Medtner wrote almost exclusively for the piano. He wrote 14 piano sonatas, many other pieces for solo piano (including the Skazki or Fairy Tales), a few chamber works, and three piano concertos. Medtner recorded some of his works on 78 rpm records at the end of his life. He was a virtuoso pianist on the order of Rachmaninoff (one has to be to play most of his works). Unlike some composers, his works stand up to repeated listenings, in fact it takes multiple listenings to get the most out of them.

My friend on YouTube who goes by the handle itchy2345 has recorded many of the solo pieces by Medtner. She plays beautifully. Here is an example, the Fairy Tale, opus 20, no 1:

You would do well to explore the other Medtner works she has recorded. Medtner is now well represented on YouTube and on recordings. The 3 piano concertos are amazing. The best in the second, particularly the first movement. The way the themes kind of melt into each other at the end of the movement is typical of Medtner. As always, Marc-Andre Hamelin is great at this sort of music:

Unfortunately Medtner died without much recognition (that old story). Fortunately he is now finally getting his due. He is the sort of composer whose music is fascinating and grows on you. If you like classical music of the romantic period, give him a listen.

By mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

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