Nikolai Medtner

1880 1951

Nikolai Medtner

Composer • Piano


Nicolai Medtner was a 20th century Russian composer and pianist with Danish, Swedish and German ancestry. His family’s German roots in particular were quite strong, although his forefathers had been in Russia already for several generations.

Medtner took up an early interest in music and began to learn the piano from the age of six, first with his mother and later with his uncle Fyodor Goedicke. He enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 where he studied with A.I. Galli, Pavel Pabst, V.L. Sapellnikov and Vasily Safonov. In 1900 he graduated with a gold medal to recognize his achievement as the most outstanding pianist of his class. He studied theory and harmony briefly with Nikolay Kashkin and Anton Arensky, but did not follow the composition programme at the conservatory. Instead, he taught himself composition and would regularly show his work to Sergei Taneyev.

In 1900, Medtner also participated in the Rubinstein Competition and won an honourable mention as a pianist. Medtner planned to launch his career as a soloist shortly after but he was convinced by his brother and Taneyev to pursue composition instead. From this moment on, Medtner used his concert performances purely to promote his own works, the majority of which are for solo piano. All of his works contain a piano part.

In 1903, Medtner’s first opus was published and he premiered his first works publically. Of these early compositions, his Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5 (1902-3) drew the interest of the Polish pianist Josef Hofmann, and in turn Rachmaninov. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Rachmaninov, who also provided much financial support for Medtner.

Medtner’s performances in Germany in the early 1900s were rather unsuccessful and failed to gain attention. However, he experienced much more success in Russia. He won the Glinka Prize twice, once in 1909 for his Goethe settings Op 6 (1904-5) and again in 1916 for two of his piano sonatas, Op. 25 No. 2 (1911) and Op. 27 (1912-14). In 1909 he was also appointed to the advisory board of the Editions Russes and offered the position of piano professor at the Moscow Conservatory, which he held for one year. After World War I he took up his professorship again.

Lack of sympathy with the Bolshevik Revolution led Medtner and his wife to leave Russia in 1921. They first travelled to Berlin, but his music was of no interest to the public there as it was far too traditional. With Rachmaninoff’s help, Medtner toured America in the mid-1920s. After his tour, he settled in Paris, where his music met the same fate as in Berlin. Disappointed, Medtner toured Russia and travelled to Britain. His music was met with enthusiasm in Britain and he was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music. He also received the opportunity to perform his Concerto No. 2 (1922-7) at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert.

In the early 1930s, Medtner set about writing a treatise to explain his conservative and traditional compositional leanings. In his writings, he condemned modernism as he believed it didn’t allow for the connection of an artist’s art and soul. With the help of Rachmaninov, Medtner was able to publish his treatise, titledMuza I moda (‘The muse and the fashion’).

Medtner decided to move to Britain, as his music seemed to be most appreciated there. There he was able to compose, give concerts and teach lessons for several years until his success was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Unable to work in London, Medtner and his wife moved to Warwickshire in 1940 to stay with the family of pianist Edna Iles. While in Warwickshire, he completed his final piano concerto, Concerto No. 3 (1940-3), during which he suffered a heart attack. After recovering, he premiered the work in 1944 at the Royal Albert Hall.

Medtner is often compared to other Russian composer-pianists of the Romantic era includingScriabin and Rachmaninov, though they both had more successful careers. Medtner’s writing explores the full capabilities of the piano and is often complex and demanding, though never without an expressive purpose. Medtner was quite conservative for his time and stayed within the harmonic styles set in the 19th century. He ventured a bit further rhythmically with the use of many difficult cross-rhythms.

Medtner’s music combines evidence of his Russian upbringing with his Western roots. The music of Beethoven was of particular influence on Medtner. His Russian style is obvious in the nationalistic works such as theRussian Tale (1921-4). His songs also possess characteristics of both countries. He set his songs only to Russian and German texts; his style also changes with the language. Throughout his entire compositional career, Medtner’s style rarely changed. His output remained consistent and displays no distinct periods.

Images courtesy of, the BBC and public domain

With the formation of the Medtner Society through the Maharajah of Mysore in 1946, Medtner was able to make recordings of his most important works for the label EMI. These recordings include his concertos, Piano Quintet (1904-48) and Violin Sonata No. 1 (1909-10) in addition to many songs and solo piano works.

Medtner’s output includes 14 piano sonatas, three piano concertos, many solo piano works, three violin sonatas and 106 songs. His piano sonatas are often considered among the best of the 20th century and among the most important within the genre for Russia. His most impressive miniature works for solo piano are the 38Märchen (‘Tales’), which he composed throughout his entire career. His three concertos show brilliant writing for the piano, but his inexperience with orchestration is sometimes apparent; these three works represent his only use of the orchestra. The three violin sonatas are magnificent and highly rated in the Russian repertory. In addition to the violin sonatas, his chamber music output includes just two more violin works and the Piano Quintet.

The songs feature predominately texts from Pushkin and Goethe. More than half of his songs are in Russian, the rest in German. The most impressive of these songs includeMuza (‘The Muse’) and Elegiya (‘Elegy’), both of which were written in 1913 and use the text of Pushkin. His songs usually give the pianist and the singer equal importance.