Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Nikolai Karlovich Medtner
Medtner composed somewhat over sixty groups of works given opus numbers and a few works without, including works for piano solo, with violin, voice, quartet, second piano, and with orchestra. Among these are fourteen piano sonatas, three more with violin (and one more with wordless solo voice,) and three surviving piano concerti.
He left Russia after the Revolution as did his friend Rachmaninov, but only settled in London in 1936. HMV made recordings at the end of his life when the Maharajah of Mysore became interested in his music, of his pianism in his own works and those of others. In some of these recordings he accompanied Benno Moiseiwitsch in two-piano music; they also feature Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing several of his lieder, including "The Muse", a Pushkin setting from 1913.
The first piano sonata, op. 5 in F minor, is a four-movement work from the years 1902–3 suggesting the style of Scriabin or Rachmaninov. Medtner's style gains subtlety and complexity in later years, though this work is already substantial. An opening Allegro, dramatic and imbued like much of Medtner's music with bell sounds, is separated by a rhythmic and forceful Intermezzo from a Largo divoto reaching a Maestoso climax before subsiding into the Allegro risoluto finale.
The second, third and fourth piano sonatas, one-movement works each, can be played separately, but form the "Sonata-Triad" (op. 11, in A-flat, D minor and C major. Written 1904–8.) The D minor has the title "Sonate-Elegie", opening slowly though closing with quite the coda (Allegro molto doppio movimento, in the major...); the A-flat is fairly subdued, and the C major while not brash might still be considered a great coda to the set.
The fifth and most popular of his sonatas, the 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 formal and emotional center of this brief work (fifteen minutes or so) is the Interludium: Andante lugubre which takes the place of most of the development section.
The sixth sonata followed soon after, one of a group of two, his opus 25. It bears the title "Sonata-Skazka," which translates to "Fairy Tale Sonata." This brief C minor sonata, written in 1910–1, is in three movements (the second and third connected,) Allegro abbandonamente, Andantino con moto, and Allegro con spirito. The opening is a regular sonata form, while the slow movement keeps returning to its main theme (the work it reminds many people of was not written for thirty years more,) while the minatory final march with variations ends with a coda which sees the themes from earlier movements through odd angles.
The other half of opus 25 — the seventh sonata in E minor, "Night Wind" (after Tyutchev, an excerpt from whose poem "Silence" provides the epigraph,) written in 1911, is a one movement work in several parts, usually lasting somewhat over a half-hour, and one of Medtner’s most ambitious efforts. It is basically a sonata-movement followed by a fantasy, ending in a shadowed but active coda.
The next sonata, the "Ballad‐Sonata" (op. 27, in F#,) began as a one movement work, and expanded into the two (three) movement form it now has over the period 1912–4, a Ballade, Introduction and Finale. The first movement opens with one of Medtner’s lovelier melodies. The finale, like the piano quintet, has a thematic connection with his Pushkin setting "The Muse" (there are a few recordings of this; of the songs I know it is one of the better ones.)
The one-movement ninth sonata, his opus 30 in A minor, seems a bit of an odd sonata out for having no title (unless one counts the opus 5, or calls it "War Sonata" as is very occasionally done; he did also write "During the war 1914 – 1917".) For Medtner it is harmonically exploratory (though this is relative.)
The "Reminiscenza" tenth sonata, opus 38 no. 1 in A minor, is the first of a cycle of eight works called "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.) The mood of this one-movement, moderate-tempo work is nostalgic and obsessive. There are a few other works in the opus 38 set which contain some variant of the opening theme of this sonata, including the concluding "Alla Reminiscenza". Gilels recorded the sonata and had it in his repertoire. (He also recorded the opus 22.)
The eleventh sonata, the "Tragica" opus 39 no. 5 (in C minor,) is the last of the second cycle. (There is some repetition of themes here also — the piece before the sonata in the cycle, the "Canzona mattinata", contains a theme also heard once in the sonata, is meant to be played with it, and connects with it attacca — without pause.) This is also a sonata-form, but allegro, ferocious, with three themes of which one (the reminiscence from the Canzona) fails to return, and a crashing coda.
The twelfth sonata, "Romantica", opus 53 no. 1 (B-flat minor) was written some years later along with the next sonata, in 1931–2. This four-movement work 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 the C minor sonata from opus 25.
The thirteenth sonata, "Minacciosa" (Menacing; also called Tempest,) opus 53 no. 2 (F minor) is another one‐movement work — indeed stormy, very chromatic if not so much so as the opus 30, with an impressive fugue.
The last of the piano solo sonatas, "Idyll-sonata", opus 56 in G major, was written in 1937. This is a two-movement work — a briefish Allegretto cantabile Pastorale and a rondo Allegro moderato e cantabile (sempre al rigore di tempo) with delicate harmonic colorings, in which the cantabile markings of the two movements are good pointers to the mood and sense.
Piano concerto no. 2 , op. 50, 1920–7. (C minor; dedicated to Rachmaninov, who dedicated his 4th concerto to Medtner.) In three movements, a Toccata, and a Romanza from which follows a Divertimento. The first movement is driving in movement, and has a good balance between piano and orchestra. One subsidiary theme resembles a folktale 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 a ringing of changes.
Piano concerto no. 3 , op. 60, 1940–3. (E minor. The circumstances which led this work to be created are tied in with the biography of his last years...) Three connected movements, the first Con moto largamente and almost sleepy for some time, acquiring energy, the second an Interludium Allegro, molto sostenuto, misterioso quoting the first movement and prefiguring the finale, and a long Allegro molto. Svegliando, eroico sonata-finale which caps the work in energy.
Violin sonata no. 3, op. 57, 1938, E minor. Recorded by Oistrakh among others. In four movements, Introduzione — Andante meditamente, Scherzo — Allegro molto vivace, leggiero, Andante con moto, Finale — Allegro molto. The introduction juxtaposes chords quietly but insistently, joined by a melody on the violin. The melody becomes the first theme of the — lengthy — main sonata movement that follows, juxtaposed with other themes including a march in imitation.
The scherzo, in A minor, opens with something like the rhythm of the opening movement’s faster sections, and is in a sort of rondo form.
After a varied reminiscence of the sonata’s opening, now in F minor, the andante is a lament. As it ends with a return to this passage there is another variation on this opening, much louder, crisper in attack, ushering in E minor and a virtuoso finale.
Whether Medtner’s music makes inroads into the wider repertoire at all, or remains the territory of a few performers and listeners, depends on whether it is true, as is said (by some other than the aforementioned performers and listeners of course...) that he did sacrifice melodic interest, beauty, and communicativeness (or enough of them) at the altar of complexity, of the sonata form, of counterpoint. It may be that some of his works are better advocates for him in this connection - his songs are much more directly communicative than the solo piano music, the violin sonatas more extroverted — than others (the piano concerti, and indeed, some of these sonatas, perhaps depending on the performance, of course) — and it is also true that his music is now that of a cult composer, at least in reputation and possibly in fact. (The availability now of more of his music on recording should help any debate, of course.)
Medtner’s one book, The muse and the fashion, being a defence of the foundations of the art of music (1935, republished 1957 but may not be in print) was a statement of his artistic credo and reaction to some of the trends of the time. He believed strongly that there were immutable laws to music, whose essence was in song.
(Unrelatedly) The composer was a BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week in 2001.
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