By this point in the semester, you have written two kinds of essays: the lens essay, which requires you to distill a particular concept from a given text and then use it to analyze something else (another text, a personal experience, an event in the world, etc.), and the conversation essay, which requires you to develop and situate an idea of your own in relation to the arguments of several other texts. This third progression asks you to synthesize the lessons of the first two progressions as you pursue a more sustained research and writing project.
The Compromises of Nikolai Medtner’s Uncompromising Life
I love him very much and I admire him, and speaking frankly, I consider him one of the most talented among the contemporary composers. He is one of those rare people—as a musician and a human being—who grows in stature as one knows him better. This is the fate of few and I wish him all the best. Yes, this is Medtner—young, healthy, strong, and energetic, armed with a lyre in his hands!
—Sergei Rachmaninov to Marietta Shaginian (quoted in Rimm, 117)
But [Medtner] is so vital and insatiable in his talks about music, art, and the world in general, that he is apt to exhaust his listener.
—Alfred Swan in “Rachmaninoff: Personal reminiscences” (quoted in Rimm, 117)
[Medtner] has made for himself, by the sheer strength of his own personality, that impregnable inner shrine and retreat that only the finest spirits either dare or can inhabit.
—Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji in Around Music (quoted in Rimm, 135)
What makes a great artist? Without delving into the quagmirish question of what makes great art, consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s well known aphorism: “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Rather than offer hope to the stereotypical misunderstood artist, it alludes to the near impossibility of creating something challengingly original which can be immediately appreciated. If art is a form of communication, then great art which is well received in its own time represents profound effort on the part of the artist, audience, or both; hence its rarity. It is also true that we fail to appreciate immediately everything that we should, and with time we run the risk of the loss becoming permanent. But there is a powerful countervailing force in the art world: the desire of the connoisseur, like the investor, to be the discoverer of some great secret. This paper comes far too late to herald the discovery of the composer Nikolai Karlovich Medtner, for he is already now becoming more widely known. Nonetheless, there is yet room for Medtner scholarship. In this paper I aim to convey two complementary messages about Medtner: first, that the quality of his music places him among the masters of Western composition; and second, that his lack of fame is, in large part, his own doing. The very obstinacy which enabled Medtner to forge his unique creations also doomed him, at least in his lifetime, to relative obscurity.
Who was this anachronism of a man, a resolute Romantic during the heyday of atonalism? Medtner was born in Moscow in 1880 to an artistically inclined family, sufficiently well to do to foster a “consciously intellectual atmosphere in the home” (Martyn, 2). Foreshadowing the focus of his published works, mere steps up the family tree reveal accomplished pianists, singers, and poets. Medtner’s mother, a former singer, was his first piano teacher. Progressing rapidly, and visibly gifted at the piano and composition, “one day in 1892 he returned home from school, threw down his books and, declaring that from that time on he intended to devote himself exclusively to music, demanded to be enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory” (Martyn, 4). While he also studied composition there, young Medtner’s primary area was the piano, of which his command was the stuff of conservatory legend. According to the somewhat hagiographic Medtner and his Music, in demonstrating techniques to Medtner, his instructor “Safonov never once played a note on the instrument, his only practical demonstrations being on the piano lid” (Holt, 9). When Medtner left the conservatory in 1900, having been awarded the Small Gold Medal as the top graduating pianist, “Safonov is said have declared that, with so prodigious a talent, Medtner should have been given a diamond medal, had such a thing existed” (Martyn, 9).
Considering Medtner’s ability, training, and industry connections via the prestigious conservatory, the stage seemed set for a brilliant career as a pianist. “Safonov had planned a glittering tour for the young virtuoso that would have launched his career on the most secure footing. Medtner would have none of it. Out of ambition, stubbornness, and ego, he refused to go along with the plans laid before him, instead devoting his time to composition” (Rimm, 119). Shortly after embarking on tour performing Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto No. 5, “when Medtner realized that he would be expected not only to play the same musically empty Rubinstein Concerto everywhere he went, but to give recitals of uncongenial works merely to show off technique, he rebelled and to Safonov’s great annoyance withdrew from the agreement as arbitrarily and stubbornly as he had abandoned school some eight and a half years before” (Martyn, 13). His true calling, Medtner decided, was not as a performer. He was meant to compose, and “he considered himself Beethoven’s musical scion” (Rimm, 128). From this point forward, Medtner’s public performances were few and far between, and consisted almost exclusively of his own works and those of his self-identified musical ancestor. “Medtner’s unwillingness to play others’ music caused endless career problems but reflected an antiquated Russian trait: latching onto an idea and stubbornly seeing it through, whatever the consequences” (Rimm, 119).
While Medtner had not focused on composition at the conservatory, he nonetheless had an uncommon natural talent. His composition instructor, the esteemed and influential Taneyev, surmised that his charge must have been “born with sonata form” (Martyn, xi). Medtner had his own ideas about other aspects of composition as well. “Once, having difficulty in resolving a musical impasse in a composition, he was told by his teacher that the solution was simply to move some element or other to a different place, ‘like rearranging furniture in a room.’ Medtner, for whom organic musical growth was so important, could not go along with such a method; indeed, he did not even understand it. His head was always full of unresolved problems of counterpoint and emerging musical ideas, their solution sometimes coming to him unexpectedly, even at night when half-asleep.” This approach continued to serve him throughout his life, best exemplified by the Piano Quintet, Op. posth., which took 44 years to complete (Martyn, 248).
This description, although it hints at the nature of Medtner’s artistic approach, does no justice to his unique musical voice; it seems rather to describe any composer who has grown tired of following the rules. Ironically, the trend in Medtner’s day was to throw away the old rules derived from the practices of Palestrina, Bach, and the masters who followed, and invent new ones. “Medtner’s contemporaries went off into radical experimentation with new sonic languages—witness the revolutionary challenges thrown across the world by such composers as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Debussy, who found their public with atonality, modernism, and expressionism” (Rimm, 129). Medtner fervently bucked this trend at a heavy cost. In a world between great wars, in which cultural movements were shifting rapidly, Medtner was seen by most as a unrealistic reactionary, holding fast to outdated musical dogma—“a return to the classical use of harmony and notation”—that couldn’t possibly express the sentiment of the modern age (Rimm, 128). Prokofiev called one of Medtner’s late sonatas “dreadfully boring and unnecessary;” Scriabin more generally remarked, “I do not understand how one can in our time write ‘just music.’ This is so uninteresting” (Rimm, 136). There is always a price to be paid for going against the crowd, but Medtner the artist paid double: because the modernists were commonly thought to be advancing the state of the art, he was viewed as going backward rather than forward.
There were exceptions. Within the musical establishment, Medtner had his adherents, mostly Russians. Among them: his teachers Taneyev and Safonov; the pianists Moiseiwitsch, Gilels, and Horowitz; the composer-pianist Sorabji; the composer-conductor Glazunov; the music writers Newman, Swan, and Holt; and the immensely popular composer-pianist-conductor Rachmaninov, seven years his elder, who became a close friend and musical ally, and who consistently used his bully pulpit to champion Medtner’s cause. What qualities did these educated few recognize in Medtner’s work? For one, he had a complex sense of rhythm. The second movement of his magnum opus, the “Night Wind” Sonata in E minor, Op. 25, No. 2, “possibly has claims to be the most extended piece of music in 15/8 time in existence” (Martyn, 86). This is a rare compound meter—most Western music has two, three, or most often four regular beats per measure—but in Medtner “unusual metres and syncopation are often distinctive features of the fabric of the music” (Martyn, xii). As Taneyev knew well, another of Medtner’s gifts was his intuitive sense of counterpoint, the arranging of simultaneous independent melodic lines, perhaps best seen as a subset of his more general facility with manipulation of thematic material. “A characteristic ploy,” explains Martyn in reference to the “Night Wind” Sonata, ”...is to show at the end of a work that all its themes, though apparently widely diverse, emanate from a single source. Such writing is intensely satisfying, musically and intellectually” (xi).
As a result of these highly developed skills, and of his avoiding “sonority and sensuousness for their own sakes,” his music is simultaneously exceptionally spare and exceptionally dense (Martyn, xii). There are melodic lines to ensnare the ear, but they’re rarely long, soaring, memorable phrases like Rachmaninov’s. There are clear harmonic progressions and engaging rhythms, but they’re not always easily repeated after a single listen. Medtner “does not regard melody as a sort of series of telegraph wires superimposed on the rest of the musical landscape, nor is harmony in his eyes a dominant element, nor rhythm a self-sufficient one in the musical structure. He aims at a perfectly balanced synthesis of all three” (Holt, 13). This highly intellectually demanding music is not designed for first impressions. I remember clearly my first experiences six years ago listening to Medtner’s first Sonata, the Op. 5 in F minor, completed while he was 23. Initially it sounded dry, workmanlike, competent, and almost (but not quite entirely) uninspired. I felt obliged to listen a few more times, however, because in some way I could not consciously perceive, I somehow knew it was of a very high quality. Each time I relistened, I heard new patterns emerging. After half a dozen passes, I was hooked. Hardly uninspired, here was music designed for a lifetime of intrepid listening.
For me, coming to love Medtner’s music took a concerted effort. I realize now that appreciation of his work has an additional prerequisite. One must be not only willing to listen actively and repeatedly, which prevents legions of new fans from easily forming, but also musically gifted and/or trained. I had studied the violin, recorder, viola, percussion, and piano for a total of 15 years, including some music theory and composition, before I discovered Medtner—and that wasn’t sufficient to take an instant liking, merely sufficient to detect that it merited further investigation. If the complexity of his music is not directly apprehended by the relatively musical, to those less so inclined it must sound more daunting still. As the critic Grigory Prokofiev remarked on the Op. 25, No. 2, “The Sonata is powerfully and strongly constructed, and it is not even saturated with scholasticism or academicism, but the composer’s eyes are set on such far distances that almost no-one will follow him there” (Martyn, 89).
The challenge of listening well is chief among the reasons for which Medtner’s manifestly important work went largely unappreciated in his lifetime and remains relatively unappreciated today. In some ways his music inherently limits its audience. For instance, one reason it is not often heard is the difficulty of playing it well. “Its technical difficulty puts beyond the scope of all but the most proficient of amateurs” (Martyn, xiii). With his intricate figurations, rhythms, and contrapuntal lines, pulling the sheet music off the shelf and playing through it is very slow going. Prokofiev characterized the Op. 8, No. 2 Skazka as “hard to play, although everything was pianistic…. In general, it was very typical of Medtner’s piano technique that all the notes should be right there under your fingers” (Rimm, 132). Until a few years ago, sheet music for even Medtner’s better known pieces was difficult for amateurs to come by. On my application this semester for private piano instruction, I noted Medtner’s “Sonata-Reminiscenza,” Op. 38, as the piece I’d most recently been working on; the instructor glanced at it, raised an eyebrow, and asked, “How’d you find your way to that?” I was pleased to hear he at least knew of it.
Among Medtner’s devotees, Moiseiwitsch and Horowitz performed the Sonata in G minor, Op. 22, but it gradually fell from their programs (Rimm, 135). Rachmaninov himself—he of the limitless technique, the golden tone, and the tireless support of Medtner’s music—included only the Op. 25, No. 1 “Sonata-Skazka” in his repertoire (Martyn, 84). On meeting Rachmaninov, the acclaimed pianist Horowitz admitted, “We both liked Medtner’s music very much, though I had not played it in public for a long time” (Rimm, 135). This engenders a cycle: people don’t hear Medtner at recitals, thus they don’t know Medtner, thus they don’t learn it and play it for friends, thus there’s no teeming mass of recitalgoers demanding Medtner.
As a Romantic in the wrong century, Medtner was hard for audiences and critics to categorize. In relation to his contemporaries Scriabin and Rachmaninov, “lacking the mystique of the former and the popular appeal of the latter, he was from the first overshadowed” (Martyn, xi). In a halfhearted nod to Medtner’s familial and musical German ancestry, as well as to surface similarities in the two composers’ styles, some critics called him “the Russian Brahms.” Measured against the atonalists, he was a staunch opponent of the revolution. In each of these attempted pigeonholings he was perceived as second-best, derivative, or behind the times. Rachmaninov, while unquestionably biased toward his friend, was better informed: “Medtner is too much an individual to bear resemblance to anyone except the Russian composer Medtner” (Martyn, xii). A like-minded Sorabji held that “Of the absolute individuality of this music… there can be no two opinions” (Rimm, 133).
In addition to the difficulties of playing and hearing his music, Medtner further limited his audience by his choices and actions. Had the atonalists read Medtner’s manifesto on the source and nature of true music, The Muse and the Fashion (published by Rachmaninov), they might have been permanently antagonized. In it, mincing no words, Medtner observes that around the turn of the 20th century there began to occur “contemporary accidents… [wherein] even the commonest, most usual chords, show no connection with each other, and no gravitation toward unity” (80). His criticism continues apace: “Such erasures and cuts of the senses were in former times simply called mistakes, and as such had no access onto the platform, or as one used to say formerly, into the shrine, of art…. What was previously timid incompetence acquired the importance of daring harmony and began to be viewed as a symptom of talent” (80-81). Any collegial relationships Medtner might have had with the new wave of composers would have been severed by this book. “His bolts against modernism hardly endeared him to cutting-edge musical thinkers or to their influential institutions” (Rimm, 125). The book is persuasive only to those already persuaded, and can only polarize opinion about Medtner.
Medtner’s choice of instruments may have helped prevent many critics and concertgoers from approaching him with full respect. He wrote three marvelous piano concerti, but no symphonies; a sublime quintet with piano, but no other chamber music. “His music falls into five broad categories, all involving the piano” (Rimm, 130). Yet a similar charge can be made of Chopin, a composer-pianist who was highly acclaimed both during his lifetime and since. “Medtner’s narrow focus on the piano found a parallel in the mid-nineteenth century work of Alkan and Chopin. In his own time, however, this attribute was seen as a deficiency in his abilities” (Rimm, 129). While many of his contemporaries were exploring the far reaches of orchestration, Medtner’s orchestrations were simple structural backdrops aspiring to nothing more.
Even if his admirers had performed his works as often as he would have liked, Medtner had the means to promote himself far better than he did. “Had he at least played others’ music along with his own, Medtner would be far better known today, and he likely would have made more recordings” (Rimm, 125). A practical arrangement might have been to fill seats by opening the recital and post-intermission with popular warhorses, then to fill ears with his own works by his own hands. But he was unwilling to make such compromises. “Though frustrated, Medtner had every opportunity to emerge from obscurity into the fame and comfort enjoyed by Busoni and Rachmaninov, but he instinctively—if unknowingly—kept himself back” (125). His insistence on performing only his own works, occasionally interspersed with those of Beethoven, only made it harder to find willing venues and audiences (Rimm, 119).
Today, the Medtner milieu is growing brighter. There are CD recordings of his music on commodity labels such as Hyperion and Naxos, including those by Hamelin, Tozer, Milne, Alexeev, and Demidenko. Dover, a publisher of low-cost sheet music largely targeting students and amateurs, published Medtner’s complete sonatas in 1998 and the Skazki in 2001. That they chose to publish these works likely derives from increased interest in Medtner on the part of these demographics, which in turn likely derives from increased awareness via CDs and recitals. The information age is further spreading Medtner word-of-mouth, via automated and human recommendations from sites such as Amazon.com.
Medtner’s legacy is complex. Like his music itself, his musical message has enjoyed a posthumous resurgence: that the laws of tonality are threads from which rich tapestries of sound can be woven, and that no matter the obstacles, there will always be an appreciative audience for unmistakably artful music. Medtner’s rare genius bore us eternal fruit through a confluence of genetics, upbringing, education, trying circumstances, and tenacity. If we wish for more such artists, we can encourage the young and hope for the best, but we must also more attentively seek those already among us, while we still have them. Or perhaps it is truly for the best that the strong-willed, self-effacing Medtner lived as he did: it left him to compose prolifically in his way, and it left us enough to find him. Unlike in his music, Medtner struggled throughout his life to firmly establish its theme; he went to the grave unconvinced he would ever be widely appreciated. Half a century later, our interest in his work is finally where he’d have felt most creatively at home: in development.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm. (10 March 2006).
- Holt, Richard, Medtner and His Music: A Tribute to a Great Russian Composer. London: Rimington, Van Wyck Ltd, 1948.
- Martin, Barrie, Nicolas Medtner: His Life and Music. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1995.
- Medtner, Nicolas, The Muse and the Fashion: Being a Defence of the Foundations of the Art of Music. Trans. Alfred Swan, Haverford, Pennsylvania: Haverford College Bookstore, 1951.
- Rimm, Robert, The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight. Portland: Amadeus Press, 2002.