Nikolai Medtner was born in Moscow on 5 January 1880.
He was descended from Livonians -- Germans long settled
in the Baltic countries -- though he considered himself
In his lifetime a great deal was made of his Teutonic
rather than Slavic heritage, as if his exceptional grasp
of form, and conservative idiom thought to resemble
that of Brahms, set him apart -- in Western eyes --
from the more exotic and colourful Russian composers.
Nevertheless it is the Russians who have taken him to
their hearts. Perhaps too much is made of his ancestry;
after all, Chopin is not considered a Frenchman, nor
Schnittke a German.
His father, Karl Medtner, who owned a lace factory in
Moscow, greatly admired Goethe and Pushkin and instilled
in his son a profound love for poetry, art and philosophy.
Medtner's mother was a musician, and though Medtner
chose music as a profession at a very early age, it
was later remarked that few musicians ever frequented
the Medtner home, which was famous rather as a centre
for the discussion of philosophy and aesthetics.
After initial piano lessons with his mother, Medtner
had the good fortune to study with Safonov at the Moscow
Conservatoire. Safonov was a formidable teacher whose
influence, handed down through two generations of pupils,
can still be detected in the most recent of the Russian
pianists. He gave Medtner a flawless technique and every
assistance to embark on a virtuoso performing career.
Medtner however chose to devote himself to composition,
and under the guidance of Taneyev mastered the rules
of harmony and counterpoint to an astonishing degree.
The young composer-pianist graduated from teh Conservatoire
in 1900, and his name is still to be seen in gold on
the great plaques of honour, together with those of
Rachmaninov and Scriabin.
Medtner returned to the Conservatoire in 1909 as a professor.
Some idea of his original, and by all accounts memorable
teaching may be found in the book compiled from his
teaching notes 'Pianist and Composer's Everyday Work'.
The recordings of the great pianist Vladimir Sofronitsky
bear further witness to Medtner's teaching. Sofronitsky
spoke of his studies with Medtner affectionately and
Medtner resigned from teaching after one year in order
to devote his time fully to composition, and several
of his large-scale works date from this time, such as
the Sonata in G minor, Op. 22, and the huge Sonata in
E minor (Night Wind), dedicated to Rachmaninov. Returning
to the Conservatoire in 1914 and resuming his professorship,
Medtner continued to teach there throughout the First
World War, the Revolution and its aftermath. His First
Piano Concerto, the largest and greatest of his works
written in Moscow, was composed during this exact period
and was the last work premiered by its composer before
he left Russia in 1921 for an uncertain life in the
Together with his wife, Anna, Medtner went first to
Germany, then Paris, ending his travels in London in
1936. The contrast between the works of his Moscow period
and the works of hihs exile is striking. The three cycles
of Forgotten Melodies from 1918-1920 mark the point
at which his music ceases to mirror the turbulent epoch.
A new serenity is apparent, and in some cases a deliberate
Russian flavour, perhaps nostalgic.
Medtner was now obliged to support himself and Anna
by giving concerts in Western Europe and America. His
traning under Safonov stood him in good stead as a performer,
and, but for his rigid insistence on putting composition
first and a disdain for any comromise associated with
a virtuoso career, he would have been widely celebrated
as a pianist the equal of Rachmaninov and Lhevinne.
His concerts still linger in the memory of musicians
today, who speak of his glowing sound and strikingly
integrated playing, giving the effect of a string quartet
or ensemble in which the inner voices were clear, the
rhythmic pulse infectious, and the bass notes and harmonies
supported by masterly pedalling. These qualities can
be heard in Medtner's recordings, but it is significant
that the sound of this performances in the concert halls
can be so readily recalled, after the passing of more
than half a century.
Medtner returned to the Soviet Union for an extended
concert tour in 1927, performing to a Russian public
eager to hear the new works he had written in the West.
His music continued to be published in Moscow during
the 1920's, but at the start of the new decade the official
attitude to the composer changed, and performances of
his music were not encouraged. Eventually in the late
1950s his collected works were published in the Soviet
Union, edeited by Sofronitsky and Goldenweiser, which
led to a revival of interest in Medtner's music that
continues in Russia to this day. During the Second World
War Medtner completed his last major work, the Third
Piano Concerto, and in the few years left before his
death in 1951 he spent much of his energy, depleted
by illness, recording his own works for EMI. Thes wonderful
recordings were sponsored by the Maharajah of Mysore,
who greatly admired Medtner's music.
The composer died on 13 November 1951 and is buried
in North London.