Ironic Narrative in Nikolai Medtner’s Second Piano Concerto



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"No one tells such tales as Kolya [Medtner]" proclaimed Rachmaninoff after hearing his friend–Nikolai Medtner–present his Op 51 Skazki[Fairytales] at a private party. Medtner was, along with his contemporaries Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, one of the great pianist/composers of the Russian Silver Age; in fact, the three together are sometimes referred to as the Triumvirate of the Silver Age. Unlike the other two pianists, however, Medtner only concertized for financial reasons, preferring to spend his time composing. One of Medtner’s unique qualities as a composer was his interest and ability in storytelling through music. While a lot of music illustrates a narrative (whether on purpose or not), Medtner usually set out to convey some sort of story in his pieces. This is evidenced throughout his oeuvre, but is most clearly seen in two sources. First, in his own writing when he expounds on his beliefs in The Muse and the Fashion that music, through melody and theme, should strive to convey an idea, tell a story, or capture an emotion. Second, in his Skazki, thirty-eight short character pieces for solo piano, most of which contain programmatic instructions of some variety. Op. 35, no. 4, for example, is inscribed with a quote from King Lear. These sources help to confirm that narrative is an important feature of Medtner’s compositional style. None of this interest with storytelling is surprising given Medtner's education and childhood interests. As a boy, his parents read all sorts of stories to him and his siblings. Some of Medtner’s favorites became Russian Fairy Tales, plays by Shakespeare, and the works of Pushkin and Goethe. Medtner’s interest in these texts manifested later in life, when he wrote over one hundred songs for soprano and piano, with twenty-nine being settings of Goethe poems, and thirty settings of Pushkin poems. Beyond literature, Medtner also loved Schumann's Märchenbilder, and sought to emulate it later in life with his own Skazki. This love of literature, poetry, and storytelling carried through his entire compositional life. Despite the admiration of his fellow musicians, and a comfortable income from composing, teaching, and performing, Medtner's music never received wide acclaim outside of Russia and (to a lesser extent) England. In an interview in 1970, Vladimir Horowitz said, "Why nobody plays Medtner? He is [a] wonderful composer. Piano composer-in some ways deeper than Rachmaninoff...There are special colors-perfumes-complex rhythmic counterpoint." Medtner, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, was also one of the mostly highly regarded pianist/composers of the early twentieth century, concertizing all over the world and writing music from his teens until close to his death in 1951. However, outside of the piano world and Russia, he never received much attention for his compositions. Medtner’s lack of widespread popularity as a composer is possibly due to his somewhat conservative nature, which showed itself in both his demeanor and his music. He disagreed so strongly with the "new music" being created by composers like Schoenberg that he wrote his own treatise explaining and defending his aesthetic ideals. Geoffrey Tozer comments in his biography on Medtner: "Faced with three decades of shifting style, compositional vogues, and musical fads, Medtner remained faithful to the standard of clarity of purpose he learned from a lifetime of classical performance. Above all, he considered himself Beethoven's student. Reflecting his approach 'in defense of the fundamentals of musical art,' the composer later wrote (in Muse and Fashion) of the essence of theme, melody, form and rhythm, and of the 'principal meanings' and 'unwritten laws that are the foundation of musical Language.' In later years, Alexander Glazunov called Nikolai Medtner 'an artist guarding the eternal laws of art.' " Medtner, regardless of what other composers were doing, consistently followed his own artistic beliefs. Although Medtner's music has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in the last twenty-five years, it is still not widely known. Unpacking Medtner's compositional techniques can add a great deal to our understanding of how far classical forms can be stretched and, most important to Medtner, how to tell a story through music. The primary goal of this thesis will be to demonstrate how Medtner, through the manipulation and subversion of normative Concerto form, outlines an ironic narrative in the first movement of his second piano concerto.