Medtner’s gracious farewell to the piano sonata

From time to time, certain composers who have been known but largely neglected enjoy a “resurgence” or “awakening,” where artists make the case for their works and present them alongside those of the great canonical composers. Seldom does such a campaign result in the said composer gaining recognition comparable to that of say, even Fauré, but ventures of this kind are both noble and exciting nonetheless. A composer who always seems to be on the brink of such a resurgence is Nikolai Medtner. As a composer, he is widely recognized, but his works are still greatly underperformed and remain in the shadow of his colleague, contemporary, and admirer Rachmaninoff (who considered Medtner to be the finest living composer, and who wrongly predicted that he himself will be forgotten and Medtner remembered). My first teacher in London, the great Hamish Milne, was an avid advocate of Medtner and recorded nearly his entire output, which includes among other things fourteen piano sonatas (the Sonata-Idyll being one of the two he did not record). Hamish correctly observed that the composer (who lived between 1880 and 1951) was way behind his time and not “up to date” with the latest musical developments sweeping Europe and making their way to the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, Medtner was very much a “Russian reactionary,” who viewed these developments with contempt, so much so that he even wrote in 1935 a treatise on artistic aesthetics, The Muse and Fashion (the Russian title, Muza i moda, sounds somewhat more catchy). Much like a Richard Dawkins book, one can guess its content just by reading the title. It is a polemic against modernism in music, which by then has exceeded almost any bounds. Naturally, not all reactionaries were out of fashion by the 1930s and 40s. Although most great romanticists alive at that time were not actively composing anymore, namely Sibelius and Elgar, one reactionary grandee kept the spirit of romanticism going until 1948, a year before he died, when he wrote his final work. That of course is Richard Strauss, who declared that Schoenberg “would be better off shoveling snow than scribbling on manuscript paper.” But one cannot compare the recognition of a prolific and iconic composer of numerous songs, tone poems and operas to an eccentric pianist-composer who, as Hamish pointed out, “basically just wanted to be left alone.” 

So what is his music actually like? It is safe to say that Medtner is a quintessentially late-romantic composer. Were I to try to describe the atmosphere of his music, I could say that it combines the thematic hermeticism of Max Reger and the impassioned qualities of Rachmaninoff. I love the sumptuousness of his music, but it is often cited as a reason for disliking him (“too many notes”). Even though his music is unmistakably Russian, it is teeming with Germanic influences. Medtner, in his treatment of thematic development, is a scion of Beethoven and Wagner, so much so that when asked who taught him composition, he answered “Beethoven.” In the midst of all this, many French influences can also be found. His music is so multi-faceted that were one to look for the influence of almost any composer in Medtner, one would have a good chance of finding it. 

How does all of this relate to his final sonata, the Sonata-Idyll, and why is it a sonata for Medtner-sceptics? Because it takes all of the different threads interwoven throughout the composer’s oeuvre and presents them in a manner somewhat untypical of Medtner. Whereas most of his sonatas are fervid and mercurial, the Sonata-Idyll is, as its title implies, idyllic. Sure, it has its occasional feverish outbursts, but those are minor by Medtnerian standards, and the aesthetic world in which this sonata resides is a lot more ethereal than what we generally expect from Medtner. Were I to try and pin similarities to various composers on it, I’d perhaps go with Schubert or Fauré because of the effect of extended phrases whose curvature is unpredictable and enchanting. Perhaps I’m giving the impression that Medtner was a gifted composer but a copycat at heart. Nothing could be further from the truth. His sense of humor, sometimes tender, sometimes witty and even caustic, is entirely unique. One gets the feeling that he is writing the music for himself, unperturbed by any possible reaction from his audience, something which cannot be said of his contemporaries who were still writing romantic music in the 20th century. Could all of these things be possible reasons for so much of his music remaining neglected? Although the Sonata-Idyll is Medtner’s final piano sonata and its pastoral and mellow qualities could easily make for a valedictory work, the composer lived for another 14 years after writing it. Unlike Sibelius and Elgar, Medtner composed almost till the end of his life. Following this sonata, he composed a few works of much greater proportion and completed the work he described as his opus magnum, the piano quintet, on which he worked for 46 years. Perhaps then, the Sonata-Idyll can be viewed as a farewell to a genre so central to his work, where rather than bringing decades of creative work to a Wagnerian climax (which he would do anyways in the piano quintet), he says the final word in a benevolent and almost understated Schubertian manner.

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